Universal Design, sometimes also referred to as Universal Accessibility, is something that is really lacking in most of our city. 

It’s tough to get around in a wheelchair, especially in the winter. While universal design does make things better for those in wheelchairs or people with other mobility challenges, it is also just good design.

Universal design is inclusive because it’s not designed for the “average” human, but acknowledges that that all people are unique.  In fact, no one person meets the statistical average that is still ubiquitous in the design of buildings, products, and services.

Our physical environment should embrace each person’s unique traits. We should design for a wide variety of people, not the statistical and non-existent common man.

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design defines a way of thinking: Universal Design is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

The design of all new buildings and some renovations in Newfoundland and Labrador are governed by Provincial and National codes.  While the regulations make buildings better than they would be without consideration of accessibility, they do not represent true Universal Design.

Under the current regulations, accessibility is often an afterthought, a thorn in a designer or building owner’s side.  Within the regulations it is permissible that someone in a wheelchair is relegated to take a less pleasant entrance on the side of a building.

Let’s consider the design of a washroom to understand why Universal Design is so important.   It is inconvenient to squeeze into a small airport stall with your luggage.  What about when a mother has to take her 6 year old son into a female washroom, but that makes another woman in the washroom uncomfortable?

I have to admit that I’ve ducked into the single washroom with a male symbol on it in a busy cafe, because the single washroom with a female symbol on had two people waiting. I got some awkward looks.  What if you are male-identifying, but still get your period? Male washrooms don’t have sanitary napkin disposal bins. I like to be discrete when disposing of feminine hygiene products, so why shouldn’t a transgender man be able to have that same dignity?

A universally accessible washroom makes all of these situations work better. Those who notice bad design often feel marginalized anyways.  It’s a simple thing, but having a bathroom that works for you can make you feel more included, welcome, and cared about.

Universal design is GOOD design, and it should be far more integral to our process of designing buildings, products, services, and public spaces in Newfoundland and Labrador.  In that cafe where I got some awkward looks, it’d be very easy for them to change the signs to gender neutral ones, rather than one male and one female. I think their patrons would appreciate it.