For up to a year I’ve been putting off writing a definitive article – one that everyone could use as a reference – that demonstrates universal design is a myth. (The same goes for inclusive design: Inclusive design is a myth.) This posting will have to do for now.

Basic facts

  1. Whenever anyone uses the term universal design or inclusive design, they only ever mean “design accessible to disabled people.” And they only ever mean some disabled people.
  2. There’s real design and then there’s universal design. Designers create the real object, and then, in rare cases, bolt on a bit of accessibility afterwards. There are, in practice, almost no designers anywhere who engage in genuine universal design, save for certain elite Web developers.
  3. Research confirms that universal design just means accessible design, if it means anything.
  4. The attested statements of designers themselves show that so-called universal design is just for disabled people, often limited to one specific group of disabled people.

Why this came up

The Ontario College of Art & Design, known to the experienced by its old acronym OCA, is hiring a director of a so-called Inclusive Design Research Centre and a professor of inclusive design. For posterity, here are the job postings:

Director, Inclusive Design Research Centre

The Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), Canada’s largest university of art and design specializing in creativity and innovation, is seeking an entrepreneurial research manager to be the Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, subject to funding.

Reporting to the Dean, Faculty of Design and the Vice-President, Research & Graduate Studies, the Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre will be responsible for:

  • planning and implementing a strategic research plan for the Centre;
  • developing and implementing strong academic and results-oriented research projects;
  • preparing successful research grant proposals to federal and provincial government departments and agencies, foundations and private sector organizations;
  • leading an independent and experienced research group with a track record of practice-oriented and academic research and innovation and program delivery in the fields of inclusive design

The Director will provide research leadership to a committed team of scholars, designers, and research assistants; assume a major strategic and policy role; and be responsible for the management of the Inclusive Design Research Centre. The successful candidate will provide the authority to build significant research and policy linkages with other universities and colleges, research institutes, government agencies, not-for- profit organizations, research funding agencies and foundations, international organizations and community members.

The Director will be responsible for driving the Centre’s research goals, developing new collaborations, landing new sources of extra mural funding, fostering a creative and productive research environment and translating the Centre’s work to peer reviewed articles, curriculum and community/agency-based programs.

The successful candidate will have the highest research credibility, a track record in acquiring competitive peer reviewed research funding and research management experience. The successful candidate is likely to be a practitioner or scholar of international distinction with a track record of action, policy development, research and program implementation and publication. The successful candidate will have a thorough knowledge of inclusive design processes including national and international standards and policy, research and development of computer-based tools, digital media, and adaptive technology, and familiarity with user-centered design and usability testing.

The Director is likely to wish to continue his/her research activities, integrating these with the program of the Centre. The Director may also be eligible for a faculty position in the Faculty of Design.

Professor, Inclusive Design

The Faculty of Design invites applications from outstanding design researchers and teachers for the following full-time tenure/tenure-track position: Professor, Inclusive Design, with expertise in accessibility & inclusive design. This position is to commence in January 2010 as part of the 2009/10 academic year, subject to budgetary approval.

The successful candidate will be expected to teach inclusive design and related content areas at the undergraduate level, participate in graduate advising, implement significant funded research projects, and may serve as Director of a research institute/centre with a focus on inclusive design. The successful candidate will contribute to the development of curriculum in inclusive design. The position requires participation in the Faculty and university-wide governance system as well as other activities that contribute to the academic life of the university.

Candidates for this position must hold a Graduate degree, at least five years of successful post-secondary teaching experience, and have experience in developing and delivering inclusive design courses and/or curriculum. The successful candidate will have a thorough knowledge of and experience in developing inclusive design processes including national and international standards and policy, research and development of computer-based tools, digital media, and adaptive technology, and familiarity with user-centered design and usability testing. The successful candidate must have experience managing a large research unit and demonstrate ongoing success in attracting significant research grants from government and private sources for education and applied research in the area of inclusive design and adaptive technology.

I applied for the professor job. “But,” I told them, “the position needs to be altered before you go any further.” Here’s an edited version of my submission.

There is no such thing as universal or inclusive design

They may be widely-loved buzzwords, but like unicorns, universal design and inclusive design do not exist. Designers manifestly do not “design for everybody.” You and I know that designers design their product, layout, Web site, or other work, and then, in highly exceptional cases, bolt on accessibility afterwards. Designers make the real object, then optionally add accessibility. This explains why designed objects are, broadly speaking, inaccessible. (We’ll set aside for the moment the fact that you absolutely cannot create an object everyone can use. There are always exceptional cases. Hence no design is actually universal or inclusive per se.)

This isn’t just my opinion. Research backs it up. See Jane Bringolf, “Universal Design: Is it Accessible?,” Multi, 2008 (PDF):

The term “universal design” was created in the United States of America, and is known as “Design for All” in Europe, and “Inclusive Design” in Great Britain. Each of these terms is based on the same underpinning concept — designing for the whole of the population bell curve by creating the maximum utility for the maximum number of people regardless of age, culture, and education or ability level. This apparently simple concept seems difficult to grasp, particularly when it comes to putting it into practice. […]

[W]e heard the results of two research projects that focussed on consumers and their preparation, or lack thereof, for aging lifestyles. “Universal design” failed to register with consumers who had little, if any, idea of what it meant. This indicates that the term is still regarded as jargon and, in marketing terms, lacks a brand. We also heard that consumers rarely purchase products based on efficacy alone because desirability is the key to making a sale. A product, therefore, labelled as a “disability” product has no appeal, even to people with a disability.

The conclusions drawn were that the term “universal design” should be abandoned because it will have no appeal to consumers (or designers) regardless of how efficacious it is proven to be. […]

Lack of understanding and misusing “universal design” has created a void in which “accessibility” and “disability” now reside. As such, it has evolved from a process to a product – a disability product. This was unintentional, but we cannot turn back time. Universal design is a synonym for “disabled” design in the hearts and minds of disability rights activists, legislators and designers alike.

Firsthand designer testimony confirms the nonexistence of inclusive or universal design. In the film Objectified, Smart Design revealed that the so-called universal design of the Oxo handgrip – an example perpetually cited in shallow discussions of “universal design” – was in fact explicitly made for disabled people (arthritics). Smart Design staff were shown pawing through a box of failed handle prototypes, only to admit moments later they’d bought an off-the-shelf rubber bicycle handgrip and carved some slits into the side.

Universal design is a myth. There are inaccessible products and then there are accessible products. Your new department perpetuates that myth. It sends the message that there’s real design, carried out by the rest of OCAD, and then there’s inclusive design that the two most junior hires in the university beaver away on.

If you want actually inclusive design, change the job

The jobs of the director and professor of inclusive design must be to change the system from within. Far from sentencing designers to 30 years of boredom, doing so will actually equip them to teach student designers to create accessible objects as a matter of course. In practice they won’t: It won’t be their cup of tea, they’ll do it just to pass a course, they’ll forget about it while on the job, their bosses will ixnay it because “it costs extra” (even if it doesn’t).

But if you want accessible objects, every design prof at the institution has to teach students how to create them, not just two people who come along after the damage is done and try to deprogram the student body (which, incidentally, I have experience doing).

You seem to be talking about Web sites

The references to “computer-based tools, digital media…, adaptive technology, and… user-centred design and usability testing” suggest this job is really about computer media, chiefly Web sites (and maybe iPhone apps and kiosks). Nobody carries out user-centred design on a can opener.

The emphasis makes a bit of sense, since electronic media can be made intrinsically accessible in many cases (whereas physical objects, including print, require the creation of another object). But you’ve rather limited the horizons of the program by using this terminology. I would have preferred an honest declaration that this job is really about sexy (also speculative and unimplementable) electronic-media projects that are easier to get funding for.

I’m not what you thought you were looking for

But I am what you need.

Tell me if I’m wrong about any of this. Now tell me the odds I’ll even get an interview. (You probably don’t like my tone. You probably also think that justifies getting shut out.)

As always in Toronto, we’d prefer to keep doing something that’s already been proven wrong rather than admit we made a mistake at the outset.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.10.15 13:36. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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