Today’s workforce is growing in diversity. It is comprised of individuals with unique physical, mental, emotional and social capabilities. In fact, many companies are making greater efforts to achieve workforce diversity. A diverse workforce can include employing individuals of different ages, sexual orientation, cultural backgrounds and even those with disabilities. Statistics show that in the U.S. there are over 10 million individuals over the age of 65 that are still employed, an increasing amount of women entering the workforce, and approximately 17.6 percent of the U.S. labour force is disabled. However, each of these working groups has unique needs. Hence, the concept of the universal design has been introduced.

What is the Universal Design?

The universal design is the design of products and workplace environments that are to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for further adaptation or specialization. That is, all products should be designed in such a way as to not only meet the requirements of 'normal populations,’ but also those of 'special populations’.

Who is Included in the 'Special Populations' Category?

Special populations are defined based on the following attributes:

  • Gender differences: including pregnancy

  • Age: young workers versus elderly workers

  • Diversity: including body sizes, strength, sensory abilities, motor skills, cognition, language, etc.

  • Disabilities: including the visually impaired, aurally impaired, mentally ill, etc.

The Goal

The universal design seeks to simplify life for everyone by making products, the environment and communications more suitable for use by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost.

The Influential Factors

Factors that influence the development of the universal design include:

  • Demographics - Life expectancy has increased to 78 years. As such, the number of elderly people in the workforce is increasing. Further, the United States Bureau of Labour estimates that over 53.9 million people have some level of disability. (For more on demographics in the workplace check out The Demographic Change and Importance of Workplace Health Promotion)

  • Legislation - The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s inspired the subsequent Disability Rights Movement. According to this movement, people with disabilities should not be discriminated against and should be provided with equal access to jobs, among other things.

  • Economics - As a result of the globalization of the marketplace, as well as the expanding diversity of the consumer base, which includes employers and employees, there is an increased potential to broaden markets to include more 'accommodating' products.

  • Social Changes - Products and services which employ the universal design are sometimes referred to as assistive technologies. Buyers of these assistive technologies now demand that such products and services be designed with their image in mind, in addition to the functions of the user. These devices are expected to be appropriate not only at the workplace, but at home and while on vacation as well.

  • The Changing Workforce - The workforce is changing to include a diverse group of people. As a result, there are now increases in the prevalence of occupational injuries, such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs); the prevalence of MSDs varies with age and the existing presence of disabilities, among other factors.

Principles of the Universal Design

For a product, service or environment to be considered universally designed, it must incoporate the following seven principles:

  1. Equitable Use - It is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities

  2. Flexibility in Use - It accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities

  3. Simple and Intuitive Use - It is easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level

  4. Perceptible Information - It communicates necessary information effectively, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities

  5. Tolerance for Error - It minimizes hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions

  6. Low Physical Effort - It can be used effectively and comfortably with minimum fatigue

  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use - It provides the appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of a person’s body size, posture or mobility

Why Design Universally?

A diverse workforce increases productivity and creativity, as well as promotes a positive reputation for companies and businesses. Therefore, creating a work environment that is universally designed to meet the needs of all employees is not only efficient and effective, it also ensures maximum productivity and creativity. Remember, a happy workforce is a productive workforce.