Universal Design and Occupational Therapy: Inclusivity and More 

Hello everyone,

I am Spoteurope’s Blogger Aleyna Kayım. In this month’s blog, as an occupational therapy student, I would like to briefly explain a core term, universal design, which is a concept that attracts my attention in interdisciplinary fields. As occupational therapy students and occupational therapists, I believe we need to explore this concept term, which contains a very inclusive and deep meaning. So let’s take a closer look at this term!

What is Universal Design?

The term, universal design was first used by the North Carolina State University Center for Accessible Housing in the 1970s. Ronald L. Mace, the director of the center, is the first and most important pioneer of the concept. Mace, an architect, product designer, and educator, emphasized that the most important change brought about by universal design was the disappearance of the concept of “special needs”. 

Universal design is an integrative approach that aims to ensure that all individuals participate in society. It allows an interdisciplinary perspective by including artistic perspectives and various health strategies, rather than an approach that includes only design and equipment. 

Universal design is also necessary for designing environments; such as homes, office buildings, hotels, restaurants, parks, streetscapes, urban planning, swimming pools, pathways, historical sites, museums, conference rooms, websites, communications, product design and services.

It does not aim for people to adapt according to the place, but for the places to fit the people. The task of the designer is to create structures and environmental designs that will most functionally meet the needs of the users. The designer needs to increase space efficiency and ensure that users can use it easily and reliably, taking into account the needs of different users. 

Accessibility is one of the items that is also the key to sustainable development. Because the quality of life increases with accessibility. And the urban environment becomes more livable and provides concrete opportunities to increase social participation. 

7 Principles of Universal Design 

Universal Design contains 7 main principles within itself and the general approach is shaped around these principles. 

Principle 1:  Equitable use 

The design should be usable by people with different abilities. This should cover both product design and space and environmental design. 

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use  

The design should include a wide choice of individual preferences and capabilities. It should also provide a variety of uses and enable options. 

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use 

The use of the design must be easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language abilities, and attention level. It is important that the design and the layout of the space be simple and easily perceptible in order to be easily understood. 

Principle 4: Perceptible information 

The design product, environment and space should be able to give the necessary information about the use to the user in an effective way that is not affected by the conditions of the environment and the perception abilities of the user. The way in which information is given should be visually, verbally and tactilely diversifiable. 

Principle 5: Tolerance for error 

The design should minimize hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or involuntary actions. It is essential that all users are protected against hazards and accidents. The user should be informed about the possibility of danger and should be supported with various warnings. 

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort 

Design products and spaces should be used effectively and comfortably with minimum power, and spaces and environments should be comfortably accessible with minimum effort. 

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use 

It is necessary to provide an approach, access and use size and area that will adapt to the body size, posture and mobility characteristics of any user.

Accessiblity and Social Participation 

The concept of accessibility is directly related to sustainability. As the universal design makes possible an environment that is sensitive to all kinds of people, regardless of age, gender, skill and situation and is more easily livable. In addition to the designers, it is also important to raise the awareness of society on this issue, in order to make the relationship between the user and the environment sustainable. 

The Goals of Universal Design  

1. Body fit: Accommodating a wide range of body sizes and abilities  

2. Comfort: Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function and perception 

3. Awareness: Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived 

4. Understanding: Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous 

5. Wellness: Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease and protection from hazards 

6. Social integration: Treating all groups with dignity and respect 

7. Personalization: Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences.  

8. Cultural appropriateness: Respecting and reinforcing cultural values, and the social and environmental contexts of any design project 

The Relationship Between Occupational Therapy and Universal Design 

The fields of occupational therapy and universal design intersect at many common points. Both areas are mainly geared towards optimizing person-environment interactions. In addition, the two areas intersect with the common goal of maximizing human performance by minimizing environmental complexity and reducing the physical, sensory and cognitive demands of the environment. 

Occupational therapists who practice environmental modification bring a new perspective to this field of practice. The application of universal design principles is a method used by occupational therapists who practice environmental modification. 

In addition, collaborating with stakeholders such as national and regional jurisdictions, professional associations, service organizations and communities to promote the application and evaluation of universal design principles is one of the areas where occupational therapists take an active role in the process. 


Center for Universal Design. (1997). The principles of universal design, Version 2.0.

Steinfeld, E., & Maisel, J. L. (Eds.). (2012). Universal design: Creating inclusive environments. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc 

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