Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 26 December 2004 - February 2005

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Universal Design for Disabled People Draws International Support

Report on International Conference on Universal Design, "Designing for the 21st Century", December 7 - 11, 2004, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Deborah Kaplan, specialist in Universal Design, Deborah Kaplan Consulting (dk@deborahkaplan.com)

The brochure for this innovative, international conference states, "This is an extraordinary moment. We are more diverse now in ability and age than ever before. It is time for design to catch up. There is an urgent need to exchange ideas about the design of places, things, information, policies and programs that demonstrate the power of design to shape a 21st century world that works for all of us."

Living up to diverse expectations and agendas

With such an ambitious description, this conference managed to live up to many different expectations and agendas. In-depth pre-conference sessions provided an opportunity for complex subjects to be explored and explained completely. A variety of workshops and plenary sessions covered a wide breadth of topics with presenters from across the globe. Pre-conference "charettes" were organized for participants to spend a portion of a day in an intensive session, many in the local Rio community, during the pre-conference period, followed by two working sessions during the Core Conference along with a final presentation. The conference brought together exciting Plenary speakers and presenters, many of whom were high-ranking officials from Brazil. One longer lasting impact of the conference will likely be an increase in accessibility accomplishments for Brazilians with disabilities.

Universal design, also referred variously during the conference as inclusive design, design-for-all or lifespan design, originated as a concept for the built environment. The phrase was coined by the late architect Ron Mace, a U.S. wheelchair-using pioneer of the disability accessibility movement, who was remembered at the conference through an awards presentation in his name. The idea is that through a deliberate design process that focuses on the needs of all users, especially including persons with all kinds of disabilities, most of the things that people build or create can be improved for all users, and also greatly expand the range of users.

Reversing basic design procedures

This concept is in contrast to the usual practice of first designing and constructing something, such as a building, and then considering how to make it more accessible. The Designing for the 21st Century III Conference was fueled by an international momentum to adopt universal design principles and practices in the planning mode. The Conference aimed to provide opportunities for the growing number of practitioners and promoters of universal design to engage with each other as multi-disciplinary colleagues. Designers, educators, leaders from disability, aging and sustainability organizations, business, media and government all attended the Conference, and had many opportunities to learn from each other, as well as make new connections for future endeavors.

This international conference built upon the successes of Designing for the 21st Century I in 1998 and Designing for the 21st Century II in 2000 (both held in the United States) as well as the International Conference for Universal Design of Fall 2002 held in Yokohama, Japan. Adaptive Environments, a 25 year old USA-based NGO, continued in its role as primary Host for the Conference. Centro de Vida Independente do Rio de Janeiro (CVI-Rio), the first independent living center in Latin America, was the other Host Partner.

A significant aim of the Designing for the 21st Century III conference was to act as a catalyst for building understanding and collaboration between the developed and developing nations. Brazil was chosen for the Conference site because it exemplifies economic disparity, boasts a variety of universal design experiments, is a "South" nation, and its capital city, Rio is an attractive location for international conferences.

Why Brazil?

Brazil is the largest nation in Latin America with 182,032,604 people. Around 50% of the population accounts for just 10% of the national income - the internal economic disparities parallel those of the world at large. The demographics are complex - from the fact that 47% of Brazilians are of African descent to the fact that Brazil has the largest community of Japanese outside of Japan. Within this huge geographical land mass more than 80% of Brazilians live in urban areas.

The Conference planners also felt there is exciting potential for Brazil to model the national integration of universal design. Innovative Brazilian leaders are shaping public policy and finding ways to excite ordinary citizens about design-for-all. A new initiative on accessible technology has been created out of President Lula's office. The city of Curitiba has created an international model of integration of sustainable and universal design in transportation and urban design.

The following session descriptions are illustrative of the Conference content, with a focus on technology and media, transportation, designers and leaders with disabilities, Japan and Latin America.

Pre-Conference Workshops

Transport Highlights

"Inclusive Design of Accessible Transport" Public transportation that is designed for all passengers, including people with disabilities, is sorely needed in all corners of the world. This workshop provided an overview of key elements of a truly universally designed transport system, with presenters pointing out that there is more to true accessibility than just getting on and off the vehicle. For example, public streets must be designed with curb cuts in order for disabled passengers to be able to get to the transit station and then to their destination, and traffic must be controlled near crosswalks at transit stations in order for passengers to be able to safely cross the street. Challenges for rural areas and for countries with restricted public transit budgets were also addressed.

For transportation advocates from countries such as the U.S., where many hard-won victories have led to accessibility that can even sometimes be taken for granted, it is extremely gratifying to see similar victories in other parts of the world. The pace of advances in universally designed transportation is increasing, and advocates in distant parts of the world can now find many resources from their peers, making it easier to advocate for change, to participate in the planning process and to find solutions and standards that can be adapted for local use. In some countries such as Japan and Brazil, major legislative initiatives have been adopted at the national level, calling for implementation of accessible transit systems for the entire country. This opens the door for advocates to become involved from the very beginning of the planning process, a key component of true universal design.

A new trend in public transit across the globe is Bus Rapid Transit, which holds great promise to bring universally designed transportation to many countries very soon. Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, combines some of the most attractive aspects of subway, light rail and bus systems into a new mode of public transportation. BRT uses on-the-road buses on fixed routes, stopping at raised platform stations that are level with the entrance of the bus, which is at the side of the vehicle and extra wide to allow passengers to enter and exit quickly. The passengers pay the fare when entering the station, like for the subway or light rail, making system-wide fare integration possible. Using BRT, a city can achieve time efficiencies of light rail or subways at much less cost and time, improving the existing bus system. Dozens of major cities in all continents are in various stages of implementing BRT. Universal design features of BRT include low cost for passengers; intentional color schemes for stations and buses to convey basic use information for non-literate people, people who speak a different language and people with cognitive disabilities; clear signage; space for wheelchair passage; ramps instead of steps (often but not guaranteed); strong illumination; cleanliness and enhanced safety. The City of Coriciba, Brazil, was an early adopter of BRT, with ramped tubed stations that include many accessibility features.

The organizer of this workshop and first presenter was Tom Rickert, Executive Director of Access Exchange International, USA. He provided an overview of the basics of access to transportation, making it clear that that are many elements to achieving the goal. Getting to a transit stop involves access to streets and pathways, access to parking spaces, and access to bus stops, shelters and waiting areas. Getting on board includes access to buses, trains and subways, vans and mini-buses for door-to-door service, and ramped taxi's. Advocacy has played a key role in the advances that have been made so far; legislation is usually required first in order to affect purchases of new equipment and construction of new facilities, as well as retrofits of existing stations and vehicles.


Two speakers from Brazil created real excitement at accomplishments so far and the commitment at very high levels to achieve a national policy of accessibility to transportation. Renato Boareto, Director of Urban Mobility of Brazil's National Secretary of Transport and Urban Mobility described the policy framework in Brazil. Brazil's Accessibility Program has created a tool for cities and the state to assess the current state of accessibility of transportation in 407 municipalities. In Brazil, 14.5% of the population has a disability affecting access to transportation. The country's goal is to identify and eliminate barriers affecting people with mobility disabilities, sensorial disabilities, and mental or cultural limitations (including illiterate and non-Portuguese speaking people) within the next ten years. At the initial planning stages, many challenges exist, including the fact that 97% of Brazil's public transportation is provided by private companies, which means that bus transit is completely funded by passenger fares. Many stakeholders are involved in the planning process, including organizations of people with disabilities.

Nazareno Stanislau, Executive Director of Brazil's National Public Transport Association, electrified the audience with a compelling speech embracing the concept of universal design and recognizing the important role of persons with disabilities in transforming the quality Brazil's mass transportation. Brazil's new legislation that requires an accessible system in ten years was developed with the involvement of all the major stakeholders, so he felt there was a good chance that implementation will actually occur. He pointed out that people with disabilities were previously regarded as a problem, but the new realization is that meeting the needs of disabled people will improve the quality of mass transit for everyone, adding that "the attitudes and values of transport officials and the public in general will be radically changed about people with disabilities".

A coalition called the National Forum for Urban Reform has a proposal that would combine public transportation, universal design and environmental protection policy. Their specific recommendations are (1) resources for public transportation should come from a tax on gasoline, (2) reductions in fares for poor people, (3) acquisition of a new family of vehicles for buses, light rail and subways with universal design, and (4) support for workgroups of citizens to develop programs for citizens to get around without cars. Brazil's transportation reformers envision a safer mobility environment for all through enhanced public transport. 30,000 - 40,000 people in Brazil are killed in vehicle related accidents every year. Under the theme "Peace in Traffic", Stanislau called for universal design as an essential component of designing cities for human beings, and not for cars. Standards defining accessibility will be issued in Brazil in a few months. In the next ten years, 110,000 mass transit vehicles will be replaced with new ones that have lifts or low floors with ramps.


Yoshi Kawauchi, author and universal design pioneer from Japan, was next to speak. In Japan, the Transportation Accessibility Improvement Law 2000 will bring about sweeping changes, also within a decade. This law requires facilities and rolling stock to become accessible, and it establishes a framework for concentrated improvement of passenger facilities, roads and stations in accord with a municipal transport plan. Each station and nearby major facilities that are frequently used by aged or disabled people become the basis for a designated route that must be accessible. Each local government is required to establish a priority area plan with involvement from local transit agencies, police agencies (for signage), agencies that are responsible for roads, and organizations of persons with disabilities.

The target of Japan's law is 10,000 stations, airports and bus/ferry terminals. The 3,700 public transit systems in Japan that serve more than 5,000 passengers a day are covered. All must participate in developing the local improvement priority areas. The deadline for implementation is 2010; so far, 10% have reached the goal. Now, about 45% of facilities with over 5,000 passengers a day have elevators, so there is a great deal of work yet to be done. In addition to installing elevators, facilities must also add guiding strips for blind and visually impaired passengers, and wheelchair accessible restrooms. 30% of all trains have to be accessible by 2010; all buses will be accessible by 2015, including 20-30% with low floors; 50% of all ferries; and 40% of all passenger airplanes.

Accessibility features that are already designed or underway include ticket vending machines that can be used by blind people, sound guides in stations for blind people, portable ramps for breaching the gap between trains and the platform, gates on the platform to protect blind people from falling when the train is not there, written and oral indicators of bus location and time, visual displays for trains that indicate where the train is on its route and also show the locations of stairs and elevators in each station as it is reached, and visual displays on each train indicating where accessible seats are located.

Japan's new commitment to universal design in mass transit will be quite a challenge to implement. Millions of Japanese rely on an extremely complex and efficient system that has up until now been mostly inaccessible. Many will be watching to see if these goals can be reached without sacrificing the dependability and punctuality of the current system. For Japanese with disabilities, as well as for a significant aging population, these changes will be life altering, opening up many new opportunities to create independent pathways within their communities and beyond.

World Bank

Gerhard Menckhoff, from the World Bank's Transport Sector, gave an in-depth talk about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). For numerous cities across the world, BRT is an attractive alternative to light rail or subway, delivering many of the advantages without the cost of laying tracks or digging underground. For the emerging field of universal design, BRT also offers many features that can expand the range of potential passengers and make mass transit much safer and more attractive. Because resources can be focused on designing the transit station, BRT is being executed in ways that make it more useable for people with vision impairments, cognitive disabilities, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, limited or no written language skills, unfamiliarity with the primary language, and the general public as well.

BRT has been put into operation in Curitiba, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Leon de Guanajito, Mexico; Quito, Equador; Djakarta, Indonesia; Kunming, China; Taipei; Ottowa, Canada; Brisbane, Australia; and Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami, U.S. Planning for BRT is underway in Hanoi, Viet Nam; Delhi and Hyderabad, India; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Akra, Turkey; Sydney, Australia; Toronto, Canada, several Chinese cities, and Cleveland, Hartford and New York City, U.S.

Accessibility of BRT for people with mobility disabilities is not guaranteed. Several systems have built ramps or level entries at stations, but that is a local design decision. Transition plates between the bus and platform can also be found in the stations, but they are not inherent to the design. For systems with no raised platforms, lifts are required on the buses. Advocates present at the workshop discussed the need for ongoing work, even when systems are designed to be accessible, to ensure maintenance of accessibility features and training of bus operators. One comment was that the disability advocacy network globally should be fully informed about the significance of BRT and provided with detailed examples of successful accessibility features in existing systems in order to be effective in advocating for accessibility and universal design of upcoming BRT systems.

Access to Mass Media

A Day of Media and Technology Access This day-long pre-conference session focused on the many existing and emerging forms of media access such as captioning, audio description and accessible web design. Universal Design to technology in Japan was also explored in detail.

Larry Goldberg, Director of Media Access at WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts moderated the session and gave the first presentation. He covered access to television, the movies, multimedia and the important role of advocacy in public policy related to these issues. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission regulates the television industry. Rules have been developed requiring closed captioning and audio description of television programs, and the FCC has also issued new requirements regarding captioning and digital TV. Similar requirements have been issued by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, by the Office of Communications in the United Kingdom where sign language interpreting is also required, and in Australia.

The conversion from analog to digital broadcasting in the U.S. began in 1998 and is expected to be complete by 2007. Digital broadcasting creates new challenges for closed captioning and video description because new tools and standards must be developed for their inclusion in digital programs. Standards are in development at several different standard setting bodies, and making sure that they will be followed is a significant challenge. The Media Access Group at WGBH has a Digital TV Access Project ( www.dtvaccess.org ) that provides support to Public Broadcasting System member stations and the television industry at large. Digital television was required to make captions available in 2002. There are no current requirements regarding video description, although there is some voluntary description available. The DTV Access Project's goals are to maintain existing services of closed captioning and to develop advanced services that will make captioning of new programming easier and more expansive in capability. Digital television will give the viewer more choices regarding captioning display, such as fonts, font size, character color and background color. New authoring systems for captioning are being developed. A random survey of television stations that have converted to digital technology revealed that 1/3 had all required methods of captioning in place, 1/3 had only one of two required modes, and 1/3 had none.

Some U.S. initiatives

Movies have been available for 100 years and are now finally accessible, to some extent, through open and closed captioning systems and audio descriptions. Open captions are provided through different techniques in the movie industry. Closed captions are made available through a Rear Window Captioning System that displays reversed captions on a light-emitting diode (LED) text display which is mounted in the rear of a theater. Deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons use transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats to reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on the movie screen. The reflective panels are portable and adjustable, enabling the caption user to sit anywhere in the theater. More information about Rear Window captioning is available at http://ncam.wgbh.org/mopix/ .

Audio descriptions are also available in some theaters. Description conveys the key visual aspects of a film or television program by describing scenery, facial expressions, costumes during natural pauses in dialogue. Headsets that receive FM transmission of descriptions are used to deliver audio description.

While some films are captioned and described, the movie studios are under no obligation to include captions and descriptions in their films. The number of captioned and described films is growing, though, nonetheless. The other major challenge in getting accessible movies to blind and deaf audience members is finding theaters that have installed the technology for showing films that are accessible. A listing of U.S. theaters with such features can be found at the mopix website: http://ncam.wgbh.org/mopix/locations.html . New digital movie projectors operate like LED projectors but with many advanced features. They offer more options for displaying captions, as well. Since they are quite new technology, they are very expensive and most movie theaters have not purchased them.

All of the technical advances in making TV and movies accessible have been implemented because of effective advocacy by the deaf community and the blind community, with support from other disability organizations. Ongoing involvement at the policy level is necessary in order to monitor and retain the existing legal requirements for TV access, including legal challenges in court, and direct advocacy with movie studios and theater chains is essential for advancing the availability of movie accessibility.

Bob Regan, Product Manager for Accessibility at Macromedia in the U. S., went into detail describing the web designer's perspective regarding access to the web. This presentation was extremely useful because many disability and universal design advocates have a great deal of experience with the user perspective, but often know very little about what motivates web designers or what pressures they must respond to. He also explained the new challenges to accessibility that are emerging as web technology moves from HTML to Rich Media and also as new screen readers become available.

Chika Sekine, President of Universal Design Institute for Information Technology (UDIT), Japan, described her business which connects hundreds of users with disabilities and other nontraditional users of technology with companies in Japan for in-depth user review of products from a broad accessibility perspective. Over 200 teleworkers are connected to UDIT, ranging in age from 17 to 87, many with different disabilities or with connections to disability. They evaluate Information Technology devices and propose improvements from the point of view of diverse users.

Japan initiatives

In Japan, 25% of the population will be over 65 by 2015. 50% of the adult population will be over 50 years old by 2005. This group represents over half of tax payers, voters and consumers with money, time and a desire to learn. Many have multiple mild disabilities affecting their ability to use technology. On the other hand, most of the designers in IT companies are in their 20's or 30's and lack experience with many social realities. UDIT bridges the gap between developers and users, and much more effort towards this goal has been realized.

The concept of Universal Design addresses this problem. Through designing technology with users in mind, products can be more useable for people with different ages, genders, abilities and physical attributes. The International Association for Universal Design is a consortium of over 130 companies in Japan that have begun to implement Universal Design in many different ways. (More about IAUD's half-day session at the conference later in this report.) Universal Design can well become a keyword for the 21 st Century, as important to society as ecology.

She summarized the results of research recently conducted in Japan about the amount of effort that major companies are dedicating to universal design, and also measuring the general public's receptivity to the idea of universal design. This research is reported in a special issue of "Nikkei Design" dedicated to Universal Design from June, 2004. Over 400 employees in 122 companies hold jobs dedicated to implementation of Universal Design. About 60% of managers in Japanese companies include Universal Design as one of their business objectives, and the number of Universal Design officers increased from 25% in 2003 to 40% in 2004. 79% of companies conduct user surveys, and 80% interview a wide range of users from the beginning of the product development process.

The highest ranking companies in Universal Design activity are Toto, Toyota, Matsushita and Hitachi. Japan is eclipsing other countries in adopting universal design as a major corporate initiative, and the general public is also more aware and supportive of the concept. In a survey of the general public, 24.8% of respondents were familiar with the concept but didn't understand its meaning well, and 31% were familiar with both the concept and understood its meaning. Over 90% felt that Universal Design is an important goal for companies, and over 15% felt that it should be mandatory. 88% felt that a company's brand image would be improved by adoption of Universal Design, and a majority of all, even those in their twenties, would select a product with Universal Design features over a less expensive item.

Public policy in Japan is also following this trend. In December 2003, the government adopted a basic plan for disabilities that promotes Japanese accessibility standards and procurement of products that comply with the standards. In May and June of 2004, formal standards regarding accessibility of Information and communications equipment, software and services, and also web content were adopted. A set of standards on office and telecommunications equipment will be adopted in the near future.

Research on Universal Design has been conducted through a collaboration of Hitachi, Keio University, the University of Tokyo, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and UDIT. This team of organizations has investigated possible new applications of information technology with a particular emphasis on promotion of a ubiquitous information society.

UDIT publishes information and reports on these developments and challenges at http://www.udit.jp/ud/report/8mg/ .

Web Access

As the "Accessibility Champion" at Macromedia, Bob Regan interacts with web designers about web access on a regular basis. He has found that web designers are by nature visually oriented, since they are graphic designers, and therefore they have a very difficult time understanding that websites can be made accessible to people who have vision impairments and are not used to communicating information verbally rather than through graphics. Learning about web access takes web designers out of their technical area of expertise, and therefore makes them uncomfortable. They also are often unaware of the difficulties of taking in information with one's ears rather than one's eyes.

Regan requires web designers who work under his supervision to use a screen reader for 30 minutes a day for at least three weeks in order to gain a working sensitivity to obtaining information orally. Noting that it takes a newly blind person nine months of rehabilitation to learn how to perceive through hearing, he reinforces his message that using the web with a screen reader can't be learned overnight. It can take approximately an extra 10% time to design a website so that it's really accessible once a designer has learned the skill of using a screen reader; otherwise, web design costs might even be doubled if the designer has no working familiarity with how a blind person interacts with websites using a screen reader. For example, with a screen reader, using a mouse is irrelevant, since you have to be able to see the cursor to use a mouse. Blind people navigate through a website using the keyboard. Most web designers can't imagine using a computer without the mouse.

Today's web access standards are most relevant for web sites designed using HTML, a web design programming language. Newer web design tools, such as FLASH, will be easier to make accessible according to standards for web access that are under development now. So, in other words, web access standards have fallen behind the newest web design tools, and web designers will have an easier time with web access once the new standards are released.

Case studies

Regan presented a case study of web design and web access. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art came to him after their web site had been built for help to make it accessible. He first asked them to strip out all the graphics and audio from their site, so that they had only text to work with to map out the structure of their site. This way of looking at their web site revealed that it was poorly designed for all users because it took a long time to get to the actual content on the site. The re-design for accessibility resulted in a website that would work better for everyone. The Museum's web site also used audio that automatically played when a user came to some web pages; the accessibility analysis revealed that this audio interfered with the output of the screen reader used by a blind user. One hopeful aspect of new web tools such as FLASH is that it can detect the presence of a screen reader and can be programmed to turn off the audio and only play it when an audio button is pushed by the user.

The future of web access will be made much more complicated by multiple platforms for computer web use (Windows, Apple, LINUX) and multiple screen readers that will be used. Blind users are expected to migrate over to screen readers that will be built into new Apple computers and into LINUX as well. In addition, Mozilla (a web popular browser) will soon be accessible, and so there will be multiple web browsers in use among blind users as well.

European approach

A Universal Design Mentality and Culture in Development: Process and Dynamics in Europe

Four presenters from the field of architecture provided a view of Universal Design as it plays out in Europe. From the policy level to the local building design level, Europe can be regarded as a single entity, the European Union, and it can also be understood as several different countries, each with its own culture and history regarding both design and policies regarding persons with disabilities. Since the economic conditions and culture are comparable to the U.S., Europe can be contrasted with American policies and practices. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been inspirational to Europe, however there are real differences that affect how Universal Design is applied. Europeans are more used to a service model of disability, as opposed to the ADA's legal rights approach with a complaints basis of enforcement. Americans have developed a system that embraces the social model of disability, which strives to treat disability as a normal status and seeks to achieve macro solutions. European disability policy, although it is really still disparate policies in various countries, is still more based on the medical model, which seeks solutions at the micro level, or with the individual with a disability.

The first speaker, Hubert Froyen, Professor of Architecture, PHI, Belgium, made several general observations about Europe in general. He portrayed Post War Europe as in a process of change away from its deeply hierarchical sociopolitical institutions to a more egalitarian structure. Under the new European Union (E.U.), concepts of non-discrimination are taking hold, along with a rising general standard of living, although there are still gaps between rich and poor, especially in Eastern Europe. The Nordic countries have a long history of respect for human rights and equality of opportunity for all. The middle countries of Western Europe tend to put fewer resources into social services and take a more paternalistic attitude. The southern countries make even fewer social investments, although there are some new projects and initiatives to the contrary. Countries in Central Europe have a great deal of catching up to do, and there are some innovative approaches emerging in the post-communist era. His own experience has led him to believe that it is very important for physical access to come first, serving to open the door for new technical and economic approaches to disability to develop. "Disability leads to a particular perception of the world," he stated. "Collaboration between disabled and non-disabled people yields counter-global homogenous trends. Especially for the younger generation, which is very open minded when it comes to concepts of Universal Design and new ways of looking at disability, there is great enthusiasm for developing new projects together between disabled and non-disabled people."


Hans Von Axelson, from the National Accessibility Centre, Office of the Disability Ombudsman in Sweden, started with a strong statement. "The Swedish in general believe they are the best in disability policy. But their national arrogance keeps them from seeing the segregation of persons with disabilities that still exists." There are well designed accessibility tools but poor accessibility of common products. Despite the fact that Sweden has an ambitious welfare system, people with disabilities still experience many barriers to society. Disability policy still focuses on individual needs.

In May 2000, Sweden enacted national legislation based on the concept of full participation of persons with disabilities in all sectors of society. All areas of government are required to integrate a disability perspective into their activities. The National Accessibility Centre coordinates all sector authorities, developes guidelines and sets priorities for implementation of Universal Design as the legislation is followed. By 2015, there will be many Swedes over 80, and a Universal Design approach will best meet their needs. The National Accessibility Centre will work towards incorporating an anti-discrimination capacity into the social policy regarding disability.


Luigi Biocca, a Researcher and Architect with the Construction Technologies Institute at the National Research Council in Italy provided a specific example of how Universal Design principles are being applied in low-income public housing, where units are small and present interesting challenges to the goal of accessibility. Pointing out that strict adherence to building codes can sometimes restrict creative solutions from being developed, he expressed support for the new performance based approach that has been recently adopted in parts of Europe. As an example, he showed a blueprint of a very small apartment unit that solves the problem of access to a very small bathroom space by placing the bathroom in a hallway that has doors that can be closed at both ends. The bathroom has a sliding door that can be opened when the hallway doors are closed, in effect expanding the available space for a wheelchair user. Further information about this example, the "User Friendly House" can be found at www.progettarepertutti.org .

United Kingdom

Marcus Ormerod, a Researcher with SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Centre at the University of Salford, U.K., led with an attention-getting statement, "Even if you are on the right track, if you stand still, you will get hit by the train." Since passage of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, there has been a great deal of activity leading to Universal Design in Great Britain. Standards and building codes have been established, and legislation calling for "lifetime homes" that can be adapted to the person as disabilities are acquired has been passed. All of this in spite of the fact that Britain is not used to the concept of human rights in public policy.

Ormerod stated that master planning is where Universal Design should first be applied and gave examples of layouts of towns with and without good Universal Design planning. Those with good design had taken into account the location of major areas of a town, how people can move about easily, and where frequently used areas are situated in relation to each other. He advocated for the appointment of an Inclusive Design Champion as a part of a Master Plan team, with access consultants brought in and with strong user participation.

The session ended with a visionary statement: "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity - Universal Design, or Design for All, as a utopian construct, deeply rooted in human rights, echoes this motto of the French Revolution, and by virtue of its "unattainability" entails a constant need for regeneration in mentality and in culture, in dynamics and in processes, in ethics and in values."

Workshop: Disability Leaders Working from the Inside Out

An international array of disability activists now working inside government to achieve Universal Design goals provided lessons from their own experiences, demonstrating that significant accomplishments can be realized working from the "inside". Each presenter began their career in accessibility working as activists, learning how to influence public policy and how to develop programs from outside government. As each person became more successful as an activist and community leader, the opportunity arose to take a position with significant responsibility for disability policy within government. Often, this new possibility came about because of a shift in the political leadership in the country or the local authority, accompanied by a commitment from the newly elected leader to make meaningful change for persons with disabilities. The disability activist and leader may have been involved in the political campaign that brought the new government to power, and during the campaign, succeeded in bringing disability issues into the campaign. The new government then became interested in fulfilling these campaign promises, and the disability activist was invited to join the new government to take on this challenge.


Taide Buenfil now works in the Office for the Promotion of the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in the Office of the President of Mexico, Vicente Fox. She is an architect and as an expert in accessibility, she works with every Ministry within the government of Mexico to make sure that each program within every Ministry is reaching and including people with disabilities, as appropriate. Her office recognizes that disability is a factor in all facets of government, working through laws, regulations, and standards at all levels of government. The Office for the Promotion of the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities has visible support from the President, which makes it easier for her to implement its mission. There are also people with disabilities in the President's Cabinet.

Contrasting her current work with her previous role as an activist within an NGO, Ms. Buenfil acknowledged that the pace of reform within government can be frustrating. Processes have to be followed, and as an "insider", she must be more restrained than an activist working outside of the system, who can be more critical of government agencies. Budget shortfalls also can slow the pace of change. Disability activists working outside of government and those working within government must work together, which is how she functions. Because she has worked from the NGO position, Ms. Buenfil can avoid the appearance of paternalism, and this strengthens her ability to work in partnership with NGO activists.


Edison Passafaro, now Executive Director of the Municipal Council of Persons with Disabilities in Sao Paulo, Brazil, became a disability activist after he became disabled as a young adult and experienced the stigma of disability and widespread lack of accessibility in Brazil. He founded the second Independent Living Center in Brazil, in Sao Paulo and also started a business selling hand controls for automobiles and other kinds of assistive technology. After Edison and other activists succeeded in getting a local ordinance on accessibility passed, the City of Sao Paulo established the Municipal Council of Persons with Disabilities. He became its first Executive Director.

Because the Council has enough of a budget to hire employees, it has been very effective. The Council and its staff developed a plan, "Sao Paulo without Barriers", which adopted principles of Universal Design and has broad authority to create access. The first stage is to eliminate barriers to the built environment and to apply Universal Design to the construction of new buildings. The plan coined a new phrase, "Accessible Urban Mobility", which applies to all citizens in many realms: public housing, streets and sidewalks, transportation, public buildings and communication. It includes economic goals for persons with disabilities, with steps leading to economic self-sufficiency, paying taxes and consuming goods. The work of Sao Paulo has become a model for the country, and other cities in Brazil are following this example.

International Association for Universal Design: best practices in Japan

A special half-day session was coordinated by the International Association for Universal Design (IAUD), an organization that was founded after the 2002 International Conference for Universal Design in Japan. The IAUD has 130 corporate members in Japan from a wide variety of industries. Because Japan has a rapidly aging population, the concept of Universal Design has taken hold with more strength than in any other country. Already, approximately 40% of the population in Japan could benefit from increased accessibility, taking into account baby-boomers aged 50 or older who experience functional limitations and also people with disabilities who are younger.

IAUD recognizes that the rapid development of technical innovation has created unnecessary barriers, and that many more people can benefit from Universal Design, not just seniors and persons with disabilities, including children, pregnant women, foreigners with different native languages and lifestyles. According to IAUD's prospectus, "We must create products for a society where there is no need to feel inconveniences because of the differences in age, sex, race or one's abilities".

IAUD advances the concept and practice of Universal Design in Japan, and also promotes it worldwide. Through popularization of the idea and through implementing it and placing more accessible products into the marketplace, IAUD hopes to revitalize Japan's stagnant economy and to improve living conditions for people across the world. IAUD operates with a permanent staff on several levels: through planning seminars and lectures, establishing Universal Design vision and targets for the organization, establishing standards and guidelines, developing individual projects through collaboration between companies and providing assistance to members, through holding Universal Design events such as conferences and exhibitions, and through publications and managing a website. Dialogue with consumers is at the core of all IAUD activities.

Introducing the session, Kazuo Toda, Executive Vice President of Matsushita Electrical Co. and Chairman of the Council of IAUD, read a statement of welcome and support from Prince Tomohito, Patron of IAUD. In IAUD's brochure, Prince Tomohito says, "No one is 100% disabled. And no one is 100% healthy. Everyone has disabilities in some part of his or her body (or mind), and has healthy parts at the same time. Universal design lets everyone lead more affluent and comfortable lives."

Naotsune Hosono from Oki Electric gave an overview of Oki's approach to Universal Design. Oki Electric produces equipment used in connection with information and telecommunications systems such as ATM's and ticketing machines. Their company vision is of an "E-Society" that allows people to function without limitations of time and space. Universal Design is an essential method for improving service to their customers. They follow the JIS standard 8341 Part 1, relating to accessibility for persons with disabilities and older persons to information processing and web content. They seek out user involvement and feedback in all stages of the design process. As an example, they manufacture an ATM with tactile symbols and a touch screen that is designed with blind people and people with mobility limitations in mind.

Yoshide Yano from Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru automobiles) described steps taken by Fuji to apply principles of Universal Design to the workplace. In 1997, the Japanese government raised the employment quota for persons with disabilities from 1.6% to 1.8% and toughened the enforcement of this requirement that people with disabilities must be part of every company's workforce. Companies were given two ways to comply, either by setting-up a separate subsidiary where workers with disabilities are employed or integrating them into the existing workforce. Most companies in Japan favor the separate subsidiary approach, which is consistent with the segregation that is still found throughout Japan. Fuji, however, decided to bring persons with disabilities into the workforce, reasoning that this approach is more realistic because of changing demographics throughout Japan that are expanding the diversity of the workforce in general: the aging of the population and more women in the workplace. Since Fuji's manufacturing facilities use heavy duty, high speed assembly lines, many of their workers experienced barriers at work, even short or tall workers. By modifying the workplace so that people with disabilities can work there, Fuji made it easier for many different employees as well.

Fuji created barrier free work areas and barrier-free pathways throughout their facilities, including the covered parking area and the locker room (where there are a variety of heights to the lockers now, since not all disabled people need the same height). They developed a universally-designed parts carrier that all employees can use, a universally-designed pressing machine, a universally-designed quality check lamp, and a new system for opening the cargo bays. As a result, Fuji has found that the workplace is safer and more efficient for all workers, and product quality has improved.

Workers with disabilities are continuously surveyed to identify additional barriers. After the physical and communication barriers were addressed, attitudinal barriers came next. Some of the workers with disabilities, especially deaf workers, complained that they felt marginalized socially. A support system was developed to bridge the gap between disabled and non-disabled workers, and sign language classes were offered. The sign language class for supervisors is mandatory and is taught by deaf workers. The optional class, which is offered to all other employees, is always full even though the workers must pay for it themselves. These measures have improved the morale of the entire plant. The human resources personnel who have initiated these steps have also learned to respect the ability of workers with disabilities to take on new challenges, even if this sometimes means that their primary job is to get out of the way. Future goals include equal opportunity to worker training for employees with disabilities, especially deaf people, and increasing the sensitivity at the workplace to deaf culture and communication.

Kei Tomioka from Toshiba's Human Centered Design Group provided an example of how Universal Design is applied at Toshiba with respect to the development of accessible cell phones. Several steps are followed:

  • Understand and specify the context of use
  • Specify the user and organizational requirements
  • Produce design solutions
  • Evaluate the designs against the user requirements
  • Prototype is developed
  • User interviews and focus groups

For cell phones, users with disabilities identified several areas of need: key pad design, phone size, and audio feedback during use. Performance testing and useability testing were also conducted with users with disabilities to assess different solutions that were developed. During a product interactive focus group on keypad design, key height and key shape were reviewed. For the audio feedback needs, twenty different features were identified as potentially useful. Users were asked to rate the necessity for each item in order to prioritize these features and determine which ones to include. Not all could be included within the limited memory capability of the phones. The actual product that resulted from this process, VM 4050, is now on the U.S. market.

Hitoshi Kanamori and Kenji Misugi from Toyota Vehicle Engineering Division gave a wide-ranging presentation on Toyota's accomplishments in Universal Design. Toyota's goals are to minimize their automobiles' impact on the environment and to maximize their safety and comfort and fun using Universal Design. They have designed an ergonomic index which takes into consideration different body sizes and capabilities. It includes 180 items to evaluate, and rating scores are given for each one. For example, ease of ingress and egress are evaluated for different configurations of legs, waist and head/shoulders. Visibility of gauges, meters and indicators are scored for all age groups. Weighting factors for each item include tolerance for error, physical effort, easy to understand and user perception of comfort.

The Toyota situational suitability index is another method for evaluating different car designs from a user perspective. 500 items are included in a database of usage situations. 30 items are selected for each vehicle, and the different situations are ranked for the functions of specific tasks within that situation. For example, one situation is putting a child into a seat in the rear of the car, or another is putting a wheelchair in the area behind the front seat. User feedback is obtained through interviews, questionnaires, and in-vehicle dynamic research.

The Raum, a model sold in Japan, was developed with specific user groups in mind: older people, children, care providers and people with limited mobility. User reviews were conducted with people from these groups repeatedly, with specific attention to wheelchair users and passengers with guide dogs. The height of the door handles was specifically tested for wheelchair users and children. Inside the vehicle, there are several handles for a wheelchair user to grab to assist in transferring to either the front or rear seats. The seats also swivel 90 degrees to the side of the car for ease of use by people with limited mobility. The Porte, another Japanese model, was tested for ease of shopping with a baby and for wheelchair use. It's advertised as a "Smart Life Supporter". Features include sliding doors, a low flat floor, and a lift-up folding seat that can provide space for a wheelchair. In the future, Toyota will offer smaller cars that work well for wheelchair use, including features such as lifts and ramps.

Yasuaki Takamoto from Fujitsu reviewed a wide variety of accomplishments in applying Universal Design to ATM's, cell phones, web access, and customer service. The "Raku Raku" cell phone was designed for older people and people with vision impairments, as well as the general market. It has simple, easy-to-use features including one-touch dialing for pre-set numbers, a blinking button to indicate ringing and large buttons. The Fujitsu computer opens and closes easily, has a large touch pad, a comfortable keyboard, large fonts and opens popular software programs with one button.

Fujitsu's ATM's are designed for easy use by people with mobility disabilities, including a round indentation along the side for a wheelchair wheel, allowing a wheelchair user to get close. It includes a phone handset for blind users, and offers screen guidance for novice ATM users or people with limited attention. Fujitsu has adopted internal accessibility guidelines for its website based on guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and the Japanese JIS standard. Fujitsu also offers web designers an online tool that is an access checker, "Web Inspector", a tool called "Color Selector" that checks on color usage in web sites for accessibility for people who are color blind or have cataracts. "Color Doctor" displays a simulation of how objects in a website or other graphics based document appear to someone who is color blind. These tools are available online at http://design.fujitsu.com/en/universal/assistance .

Toyoyuki Vematsu of Panasonic Design Company (Matsushita) described how the founder of Matsushita announced a company policy on Universal Design as early as 1942. Matsushita developed principles of Universal Design in the mid 1990's, and in 2002 at the International Conference on Universal Design in Japan, the company's President issued a major directive on Universal Design. Matsushita has introduced several products based on these principles:

  • a personal fax with large buttons, pre-recorded user instructions and extra loud volume;
  • a remote control for heating and air conditioning systems with a large LCD screen with oversize characters, a voice recognition interface, and concave buttons for persons with limited dexterity;
  • an LED neck light that can be used hands-free, a one-handed switch, and very lightweight;
  • a build-in shower seat that includes a remote control and is designed for a wheelchair user; and
  • a microwave oven with large characters in a white backlight LCD and large easy-to-use buttons and high-contrast text display.

In October, 2004, Matsushita opened two Universal Design Labs in Tokyo, one that is open to the public. The company has a Universal Design Committee that is responsible for creating user friendly products.

Audience members were quite impressed with the large number of companies in Japan that are involved in IAUD, and also excited by the many examples of products that are available. Many companies in Japan are responding to the challenge of an aging population with a rigorous engineering and design approach that will benefit countless numbers of consumers. Many felt that it is critical for companies in other countries, as well as policy makers, to understand how much has been accomplished in Japan.

Designers with Disabilities: access design professionals, opportunities for artists with disabilities

This session was moderated by Kristin Schneider of Adaptive Environments, the host organization of the conference. She described a project of Adaptive Environments, inspired by the life of Ron Mace, the father of Universal Design, an architect with a disability. The project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, has resulted in an international network of designers with disabilities. Activities have included research with designers with disabilities worldwide, the development of the international network, setting up an e-mentoring system, participation in Career Days given by the Boston Society of Architects (making these events more accessible in the process), and conducting a survey of design schools in the United States. The NEC Foundation of America supported the development of a book, "Building a World Fit for People", a portrait of 21 designers with disabilities, which is available online at www.accesstodesign.org .

The initial concept has now been expanded through work with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the American Institute on Architecture's Diversity Committee, which has expanded its definition of diversity to include disability. One of the project's current goals is for the accreditation of schools of architecture to include criteria related to disability and universal design. It is also currently training vocational rehabilitation counselors about careers in design. Training materials can be found at www.careersindesign.org . Kristin Schneider then introduced several designers with disabilities who belong to the network.

Jorge Falcato, an architect from Spain, described his many projects and accomplishments in advocating for accessibility standards and requirements and in work on specific buildings and facilities. He warned that designers with disabilities can sometimes find themselves being used by politicians to give the impression that they are more committed to accessibility than is the reality. He also reminded the audience that just because the architect uses a wheelchair, it is easy to forget that not all persons with disabilities use a wheelchair, and accessible design must be broader than that.

Taide Buenfil, an architect from Mexico who now works in the Office of the President engaged in broad advocacy work, became disabled as a student of architecture. Her school had nothing to offer related to disability, and she became involved in grass roots advocacy. With many accomplishments, including eventually teaching a course on disability and accessibility at the same University, she advised the audience to have ambitious goals and work in collaboration with other people with disabilities.

Regina Cohen, an architect and urbanist with the Pro Access Group in Rio de Janeiro, became disabled after leaving school and practicing for several years as an architect, oblivious to disability. Once she experienced the barriers and difficulties created by other architects, she dedicated her work to accessibility, working through the Independent Living Center in Rio. The Pro Access Group is a research center at the Federal University of Rio. There, she engages in research, teaching and extensive projects. She has seen huge changes over the course of her career, and finds political activism an exciting endeavor.

Sylvana Cambighi is an architect from Sao Paulo, Brazil who was born with her disability. Her background was different from the other panelists, and much of her success is because her family involved her in all activities and supported her in many ways. After she graduated from a regular high school, her father enrolled her in a technical school for industrial designers. She went on from there to architecture school, even though her classmates carried her up three flights of stairs every day. She started her own practice out of architecture school and found herself working on accessibility projects and then went to work for the city. She has worked on developing accessibility guidelines with the Municipal Council on Disability, and is now also teaching at the University.

Yoshi Kawauchi is a licensed architect in Japan who decided to become an advocate after ten years of design work. He finds that designers in Japan often don't respect or consider the needs of end users. He believes that professional designers and users need to work together more, and much of his work is involved in building a bridge between the two groups. He leads educational workshops for local activists and local government officials where the participants are actively engaged in practicing universal design. Universal Design should be an endless process of continuous improvements, a spiral up process that centers on users.

The workshops and conference sessions described above are a small sample of the many different topics covered and exemplary presenters from all over the world. There is no doubt that Universal Design is a concept that will have a significant influence in the 21 st Century. The progress that has been made in many countries in a relatively short period of time is truly exciting. The business world is familiar with important trends that have come from Japan. Therefore, it is very important to see Universal Design becoming a publicly recognized idea there, with many large companies actively introducing new products with Universal Design features. Universal Design could become as widely adopted by businesses as the Total Quality Movement of the 1980's.

The webite for the conference is at http://www.designfor21st.org/ . The conference organizers have promised that they will post the electronic versions of many of the conference presentations in the near future.

Conclusions - Where is Universal Design Going?

As an American, it is exciting for me to see so many major advances in Universal Design and accessibility occurring in so many other countries and regions. Japanese public policy, corporate practices and public opinion are all responding to the Universal Design movement, and much more can be expected. I would not be surprised if Universal Design became a major business innovation coming from Japan and influencing how business is done in the West. This would be a fantastic contribution that the Japanese could be very proud of.

The European Union and Latin America are also regions that should be watched for innovative approaches to Universal Design and accessibility. In Europe, the movement to go beyond standards for accessibility and to adopt a functional assessment approach is very interesting. It could yield very creative new practices and solutions to eliminating barriers, especially in an environment that is full of historic structures. The fear, however, is that meaningful measures to the new approaches might not always be used. The reason for very detailed standards and building codes is that the average designer and builder is too far removed from the daily realities of living with a disability, and accessibility solutions that appear promising at first blush might not really deliver the increased function and accessibility that people with many different disabilities should expect. The end result could be designs and new construction that have a Universal Design or "accessibility" label but actually impose unforeseen barriers.

Brazil currently has a disability-friendly national government, and has developed some very successful disabled activists, designers and government employees. Despite a staggering poverty rate, meaningful changes are taking place, and much more is in the planning stages. It is encouraging to hear elected leaders talk about Universal Design and accessibility as a strategy for improving the lives of all Brazilians. With very innovative approaches such as the accessible public transportation system in Curitiba to serve as an example, Brazil could play a pivotal role in leading "the South" forward.

It is also stirring to have met so many successful and capable disability activists, architects and designers, and leaders who are actively engaged in making Universal Design a reality all over the world. Anyone from the United States or Europe who believes that the developed world or the West are ahead of the rest of the world in this front should think again. Thanks to the talents and dedication of numerous disability activists, in many different roles, this field will be an arena where we all will have much to learn from each other for a long time.

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