Universal Design: Why Every Architect Needs to Be on Board

Author- Anubha Singhal

Imagine a world where everyone can move freely and confidently through their environment, regardless of age, ability, or circumstance. This is the power of Universal Design (UD). UD goes beyond just ramps and accessible bathrooms; it’s a philosophy of creating spaces that are usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible. From wide doorways to clear signage, UD benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities.

As an architect with a disability, My journey has been an eye-opener, a story that reflects the evolving yet incomplete conversation around Universal and accessible design in Indian architecture.

From Skepticism to Necessity

Diagnosed with a rare, progressive form of muscular dystrophy, I found myself navigating a world that was suddenly filled with obstacles. This personal experience is a stark reminder of how quickly life can change. It’s a cautionary tale for architects, highlighting the critical need for UD education.  My architectural training, like many others,  lacked any focus on UD principles. 

I vividly recall the dismissive comments during my thesis presentation: “Why do people with disabilities need to come out of their houses?” This pervasive attitude, though thankfully fading, highlights a critical knowledge gap within the architectural fraternity.

Fortunately, the discourse is shifting. Today, there’s a growing recognition of UD’s importance. However, the question remains –  are we, as architects, truly well-informed on the subject?

The Devil’s in the Details

What always stuns me is encountering fancy staircases with open risers and zero handrails. Another prime illustration is the lack of color contrast.  Imagine navigating a building where there’s no clear distinction between floor levels or signage blends into the background. This isn’t just an issue for the person with vision impairment; it can be a safety hazard for anyone at night or an elderly. These are glaring examples of how neglecting seemingly minor details can significantly impact usability.

Architects are the future builders of our environment. A thorough understanding of UD principles is paramount. Yet, basic elements like accessible toilets remain a point of concern. Details like grab bar placement, door design, and lock mechanisms, crucial for user safety and accessibility, are frequently overlooked.

Similarly, parking design, designated drop-off points, tactile guiding surfaces (TGSI), and clear signage are often afterthoughts, if considered at all.  Imagine navigating a building where every step is an obstacle course – a reality for many due to this lack of awareness.

Moving Beyond the Checkbox: A Call to Action

UD is not just about ticking boxes to meet mandatory guidelines. It’s about fostering inclusivity and creating spaces that empower everyone, regardless of ability. The classic architectural debate of “form follows function” or “function follows form” takes on a new meaning in light of my experience.  For me, it’s now about a more inclusive approach: “form follows function, and function must follow the needs of all users.”  Design, at its core, should prioritize the user; it should be a human-centered endeavor.

As our definition of “function” expands to encompass the psychological, social, and symbolic needs of users and the environment, architecture must rise to the challenge.  This requires a fundamental shift in education, equipping architects with the knowledge and empathy to create spaces that are truly inclusive and accessible for all. This goes beyond basic knowledge; it requires immersive experiences, interaction with disability advocacy groups, and exposure to successful UD implementations in India and abroad.

Architects, as a collective, must champion UD.  Let’s move beyond token gestures and embrace Universal design principles as the cornerstone of our practice.  We have the power to create a built environment that celebrates human diversity – an environment where everyone can move, interact, and thrive.

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