Universal Design: The Power in the Big Picture

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Guest Commentary by Jean Wasko, PhD

On November 13 and 14, I served as a volunteer at Universal Design Summit 6, presented by the Starkloff Disability Institute and held at Saint Louis University.  My job at the Summit involved ensuring that people attending various sessions signed in to earn their CEUs (Continuing Education Units).  It was a menial job that delivered a rich reward: I came away with a new world view. 

 I’ve been a volunteer at SDI for ten years, so I knew a little about Universal or Inclusive Design.  But as I sat through two-days of presentations by architects, museum exhibition designers, lighting specialists, occupational therapists and internationally recognized experts in disability rights, I learned that the things I knew were little things without the power to inspire. 

 Sure, everyone knows that power doors are good for parents pushing strollers, for shoppers grappling with packages and for people who use wheelchairs; that door levers, rather than knobs, are easier for all of us to operate; that light switches that you can push with an elbow are superior to the ones that must be flicked; that lots of people, not just those in wheel chairs, can’t reach cabinet shelves.  Everyone appreciates the hardware that provides accessibility.   

It’s that word—hardware—that helps define my profound experience.  I knew about the gadgets associated with universal design, but I didn’t know about the “software” behind it, about, more specifically, the idea of “empathy” in architecture.   

Hansel Bauman, architect for Gallaudet University, helped me see that what he calls the “Formal Imagination” produces buildings as artifacts, buildings that are about themselves.  In contrast, the “Empathic Imagination” focuses on the community in the building and the space that best serves its needs.   

Some simple examples clarify:  People who are deaf need to look at each other when they speak, and they need space for signing.  Picture two individuals who are deaf trying to walk and talk while traveling on a sidewalk.  Google says that the average width of a sidewalk is six feet, “which allows two people to walk comfortably side by side.”  But if they are deaf, does it give them room to talk?  Likewise, a classroom with tables in rows, facing a teacher, precludes conversation.  Deaf students need furniture that they can configure to face each other. 

Here’s where space really gets important in human terms.  Mr. Bauman explained that people who suddenly lose their hearing suffer a profound loss of self because they had come to know themselves by hearing themselves.  “I know who I am because I hear what I say.”  Identity, for them, is individual.  But for the deaf, identity is collective; it is dyadic.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had such a sense of identity?   

I was blown away by a new way of thinking about space and culture.  Yes, gadgets are great, but universal design really offers a new way of looking at the world, a view that is grounded in empathy and community. It just may offer a better way for all of us. 

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