Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse and, more than ever before, is comprised of individuals with unique physical, mental, emotional, and social capabilities.

In fact, not only is diversity increasing, but many companies are making efforts to achieve greater workforce diversity by hiring individuals of different ages, sexual orientation, cultural backgrounds, and abilities.

Statistics show that in the United States there are over 10 million individuals over the age of 65 who are still employed, an increasing amount of women entering the workforce, and approximately 17.6 percent of the U.S. labor force is disabled.

Increasing diversity, however, means more than just changing hiring practices. Each of these groups has unique needs, so companies have to configure their workplaces in ways that meet those needs.

What Is Universal Design?

Universal design is a principle that seeks to design products and workplace environments so that they are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the needing further accommodation. In other words, all products and shared spaces should not be designed to meet the requirements of some imagined, generic user but also those of "special populations."

Who Is Included in the "Special Populations" Category?

Special populations are defined based on the following attributes:

What Is the Goal of Universal Design?

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

Why Is Universal Design a Growing Concern?

A number of factors have influenced the development of universal design and increased its urgency.

Demographics

Life expectancy has increased to 78 years. As a result, the number of elderly people in the workforce is increasing. Moreover, the United States Bureau of Labor 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 and Social Change

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s inspired the rise of the Disability Rights Movement in the same decade. Disability rights activists not only campaigned to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities, but also argued for their inclusion in the workforce. Anti-discrimination laws aim to ensure that a disability is not a barrier to access to jobs or fair treatment during employment.

Economics

The globalization of the marketplace and the expanding diversity of the general customer base has allowed companies to profitably broaden their markets beyond their traditional target consumers. The increasing demand for inclusive service, products, and marketing has encouraged companies to diversify their workforce.

What Are the Principles of Universal Design?

For a product, service, or environment to meet the demands of universal design, it must incorporate the following seven principles:

  1. Equitable Use: it is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities
  2. Flexibility: it accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities
  3. Simple and Intuitive: it is easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, linguistic 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 minimal 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. Designing a work environment that is universally designed to meet the needs of all employees is not only efficient and effective, it also encourages your workers to perform at their peak. Remember, a happy workforce is a productive workforce.