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Understanding universal design, and why it matters

Universal design; young man with limited mobility in wheelchair uses Xbox's new accessible controller

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]In 2011, a US study found that female drivers wearing seat belts were 47% more likely to be seriously injured in car crashes than their male counterparts driving in similar circumstances.


Crash-test dummies used in seat-belt testing were male in body shape and size. Amazingly, it was only six years ago that this disparity began to be addressed.

Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can shortlist hundreds of potential candidates for jobs, and search through social media accounts to automatically update outdated resumes.

AI promises to reduce unconscious bias against certain experced ‘norms’. Yet many of the teams that work on AI are not inclusive, and weighted towards mostly male teams, says the Commonwealth Bank’s General Manager for Group Data Science, Amy Shi-Nash.

“This is so fast moving that we need people who are diverse in culture, age and gender creating AI,” says Amy.

Sally-Ann Williams, Google’s Engineering Community & Outreach Program Manager, says “it’s not that inclusion is a nice to have, it’s a must have if you are trying to build products and solutions for everyone.”




Try these in-class exercises around accessibility in your next Digital Technologies lesson.


What is universal design?

“The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.”

– The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University

Universal design incorporates all users from the beginning of the design process.

For example, while not every door is is easily accessible, the design of automatic glass doors is universal – everyone can use them, from people with strollers, to delivery workers and people with disability or impairment.

Universal design gives everyone the same access.

Another great example of this includes the keyboard, originally created for the electronic typewriter, which was designed so that people with visual impairment could create legible letters.

“Every product and project that I work on, I come from that fundamental understanding that difference is typical, no one’s the same,” says Angel Dixon, activist, model and business owner.



See the amazing possibilities of universal design in action with Apple products.


“Universal design is my values base, that’s my core and I start from that as a basis. I want to help everyone start from that same basis, and have that understanding, because it’s hard for non-disabled people to come from that place to begin with.”

Manisha Amin is the CEO of the Centre of Inclusive Design in Sydney, an organisation that aims to create connections between the people who build the world (government, education and business) and the people who use the world (everyone).

“We need people working in STEM who think about humans and not just technology,” she says.

“In future jobs, code needs to be a language we’re comfortable with, but combined with creativity, art, social anthropology, and crossing these areas with interaction design, for example.

“It’s about coding and co-design. Think about the people who are completely missing out in your products and how you can design for them. Inclusion has to be baked in from the beginning. And you need to understand coding and iteration.”


It’s about all of us

One in five Australians identify as experiencing disability.

According to a survey by Microsoft, 80% of people experience barriers when using tech, and only 20% of people experience no difficulty in using and accessing tech. Which is not only frustrating, but it denies those people basic human rights.

“The reason we’ve come up with this word ‘inclusion’ is because it’s a nicer way of saying, ‘you’re excluding me’,” says Angel.

“When we’re not included, because accessibility is seen as an option, it’s exclusion. We don’t have access to the basic human rights that everyone else has access to.”

In addressing exclusion in society and technology, it’s important to be comfortable in asking questions, says Manisha. “Asking questions allows us to understand other people’s challenges. Everyone experiences disability when they can’t do something they want to do.”

xbox adaptive controller, universal design

Xbox is developing a customisable, adaptive controller to meet the needs of users with limited mobility.


Future jobs

Increased risk of seatbelt injury is a compelling example of why we need diverse teams in product development.

In the workforce, it’s just as critical to have diverse teams, and actually more profitable, says Peter Horsley, the Founder of Remarkable: Inclusive Tech Accelerator at Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

Investment in designing for inclusion and start-ups working in the disability sector is also growing, he says.

“We want to see that market established and developed. Great tech is built when we think about extreme users rather than the middle 50% in design. If we push to the extremes of useage we’re forced to be more innovative.

“We’re all different. And if we’re not designing for ourself, we may be designing for our future selves,” he says. 



Access for all, Careers with Code US 2016


Inclusive design

Texting, email, flexible straws and kerb cuts were all developed for people with disability and today benefit all of society. Here’s where else universal design can benefit:

– Maps and voiceover for assistance in navigation

– Captions on TV improve kids’ reading abilities as well as helping people with hearing impairment

– Seeing AI – object recognition technology on phones

– Apple Watch’s ‘run’ feature for wheelchair users

– Accessibility features on websites and apps like the Chrome browser, which supports screen readers and magnifiers, and offers people with low vision full-page zoom and high-contrast colour

– Gesture-based navigation in VR and gaming and Xbox’s Adaptive Controller allow people with mobility issues to use tech


Future genius

Three companies creating inclusive tech for the future:

#1 Loop+

An activity tracker for wheelchair users that assesses risk and monitors prescribed care plans in everyday life.

#2 Xceptional

A technology services firm that recognises the unique strengths of people on the autism spectrum. 

#3 Equal Reality

Diversity and inclusion training in virtual reality.



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“Every product and project that I work on, I come from that fundamental understanding that difference is typical, no one’s the same.” 

– Angel Dixon, pictured above.



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