Universal Design is better for all humans, not just the disabled
When I became paralyzed at the age of 15, I learned to live by hacking. Can’t walk anymore? Hack ambulation with a wheelchair.
15 or so years later, I live more or less independently. I drive my own car and I live in a house. I even dress and feed myself. But I still rely on hacks every day. To drive my own car, it needed to be hacked with hand controls. To live in a house, it needed to be hacked with ramps. And when hacks don’t work, I have to absolutely and completely rely on the kindness of strangers. I don’t know if you’ve met many strangers, but I wouldn’t say they’re all kind.
All these hacks and awkward encounters are necessary in my life simply because very little of the world was designed for me. This feels especially odd considering I’ve built my career in design studios. You know, where things are designed.
Every day, I see the thought and consideration that designers put into every detail of a project. Every line is intentional, every color considered. Yet the accessibility of these things is often an afterthought not just in the work designed, but in the very studios themselves.
All these hacks and awkward encounters, they’re necessary in my life simply because very little of the world was designed for me.
I recently worked in an office that was technically legally accessible by ADA standards — except for the fact that everyone in the office worked together in one large room, on the third floor, which had three steps leading up to it. So I often worked by my lonesome on the fourth floor, not connecting with or even meeting many of my coworkers.
At an office before that, down in beautiful Austin, I once got locked in an outdoor wheelchair lift. I sat for over an hour in the Texas summer heat before security could disassemble the whole thing and release me.
At the job previous to that, I had to pull myself up two stairs every day, just to be called “Wheels” by the CEO.
I want to stop for a second here and clarify if I can: This is not about blame. I’m not mad. It’s simply a matter of design and it’s not limited to the inaccessibility of most buildings.
As a wheelchair user, I’ve found ride-hailing apps like Lyft to be largely helpful. I request a ride, the driver shows up confused, I apologize for the inconvenience and instruct them how to take apart my chair, and we go on our merry way.
Recently, Lyft released Access Mode, which sounds great, right? Access is my shit. But here’s the issue: Access Mode isn’t a mode, it’s a completely different experience. I can’t just request a ride and expect it to show up anymore.
Instead, I’m supposed to book the ride 24 hours in advance and I should also contact the local dispatch to inquire about their individual sign-up process. That sign-up process can take weeks to complete. So, to recap: Requesting a Lyft takes seconds. Requesting a Lyft in Access Mode takes weeks. This is not just an issue of accessibility for me as a chair user — it’s just plain bad design.
The problem with efforts like Lyft’s Access Mode is that, at the end of the day, they look like they checked the box on accessibility. But in reality, the experience is so far from their core offering that it doesn’t come close to delivering on the promise of the original product. And this kind of design failure goes mostly unnoticed.
This is not just an issue of accessibility for me as a chair user — it’s just plain bad design.
In this case, you have to try to use Access Mode in order to understand its failures. But there are also egregious design failures hiding in plain sight — like on national TV. Okay, I admit I didn’t actually watch the Tony Awards. But I did see the glowing headlines about Ali Stroker breaking barriers on Broadway, making history as the first person in a chair to win the award. However, when she won, Ali gracefully came out from the side of the stage to accept her award — which was strange, as nearly every winner ever has come up to the stage from the audience.
Radio City Music Hall and the Tonys knew there was a chance Ali would win and need to appear onstage — not once, but twice that night. They knew the ceremony would be on network TV. And I assume (though I cannot confirm or deny) that they knew she was in a chair. Despite knowing all of this, a group of important people came together and chose to deny Ali normalcy when they could have simply built a ramp from the audience to the stage. When Oklahoma! won later that night, Ali wasn’t on stage with the rest of the cast and crew, just because they failed to design a solution for her.
These are all examples of where design has failed — but design can also be used for good. And when it is, the results are often better than expected.
The classic vegetable peeler, invented in 1928, works fine for most. But, for some people, its thin, smooth handle doesn’t work at all. Enter the OXO kitchen products (shout out to frog design alum Tucker Viemeister). These products, with their bulbous rubber handles, were not designed for the masses. Rather, they were designed specifically for a smaller subset of users: people with poor grasps. What interests me, though, is how this design transcended its original audience and continues to impact lives, regardless of ability. In fact, the cushy rubber handles have become so ubiquitous, most people probably don’t know that they were originally designed for a small subset of consumers.
A similar example is the MagZip by Under Armour. Originally designed for an uncle with limited use of his hands, the MagZip only requires one hand to use. But once this design was released, it became clear that its impact would go far beyond its original intended audience.
From different abilities to different lifestyles, the MagZip is a testament to the innovation that can be achieved in areas that many people take for granted. It’s a zipper made for humans—many more humans than the traditional, ubiquitous zipper.
As I’m originally from Ohio, I have to bring up my close, dear friend, LeBron James. (This is only tangentially about him, but still.) In 2012, high schooler Matthew Walzer wrote to Nike explaining that, due to his cerebral palsy, he could not tie his own shoes. As a 16-year-old, he was a year away from college, but knew he wasn’t independent enough to dress himself fully every day and confidently go it alone. Matthew’s letter made it to the hands of shoe designer Tobie “Tinker” Hatfield.
Less than a year later, Nike had a working show prototype for Matthew’s feet and the support of his favorite player, King James. Much like OXO and MagZip, the Nike FlyEase shoes are widely seen as just another cool innovation, which, yeah, they are. But more importantly, FlyEase shoes are liberation in the form of fashion for many people. Bar none, though, the best part of this project is that Nike made these shoes not necessarily because Matthew needed accessible shoes that were also cool, but because he simply wanted them. Because, who shouldn’t have access to cool shoes?
Nike FlyEase is one of my favorite examples of Universal Design because it proves that we can design products and environments that are both aesthetically pleasing and usable to the greatest extent possible by every person. Sounds simple, right?
“At some point, some people become less able sooner than others. But eventually we all become less able.”
Not so much. I said earlier, many of the design studios I’ve worked in don’t seem to fully grasp the concept of Universal Design — as in designing for everyone, instead of some.
Again, it’s not my goal to place blame but to pose the question: Why not make “human-centered” design work for all humans? Why not take a stand to design what’s right, just because it’s right? Whether you’re a UX designer making choices about the color, sound, or placement in an app, or a CEO of a large company, we need more voices throughout the design process to remind us that when Universal Design is done right, it makes products more accessible to all — not just to some.
Because Hatfield says it best when he says, “At some point, some people become less able sooner than others. But eventually we all become less able.” So, if we’re the designers of the future, how do we design a future that includes all of us?
Originally published in frog design
Modus – Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design