Hubert-Froyen-(Belgium)-Photo-C2007-by-Rob-Stevens 2Professor Froyen, who was born with one hand, gives a broad perspective of Universal Design.

Universal Design is about an environment that can be easily and safely accessed, understood and used by all people regardless of age, size, ability or disability. The Universal Design Conference will be held at the Sydney Town Hall, August 20-21.

On a worldwide scale, a variety of terms and definitions are used to describe a new human-centered design paradigm, Design for All, Inclusive Design, or Universal Design. Is it meaningful to start a discourse, without a more precise description of what we mean?

Terminology in itself is not the crucial point. Let us assume that the most popular terms Design for All, Inclusive Design, or Universal Design, all on equal base refer to broad-spectrum design approaches meant to produce buildings, products and physical environments that are inherently accessible to the widest diversity of people – young and old,  tall and small, those with or without permanent functional disabilities, in temporal and ‘handicap situations’, those with heavy luggage or pushing a pram, under conditions of stress, alcohol, drugs or medication or who don’t understand the local language. If this is clearly understood as the core of our work, we can further explain and discuss the topic under whatever specific name.

How different is the perception of disability? Do we automatically refer to a stigmatized group of disabled people, under a strictly ‘medical model’, or do we adopt a ‘social model’, which refers in a much broader sense to disability as an intrinsic human condition for all, sooner or later?

Beyond perception of human disabilities, what are socio-political priorities in a given society, what resources for design and for building production are available? What technological solutions are in store in local markets? And last but not least, what are the potentials of empowerment and human drive, of adaptability and creativity in given circumstances?

Is this shift in perception of human disability, from a ‘medical model’ to a more ‘social model’, also reflected in related design approaches?

We have noticed a gradual shift from the partially superseded micro approach to accessibility or barrier free design, to the new macro approach in Universal Design. The first approach, the elimination of barriers, is based on a predominantly ‘therapeutic philosophy’. The objective here is to intervene in the environment in such a way that people can use it more independently. Universal Design on the other hand focuses attention on more than the removal of obstacles, and strives for the elimination of discrimination, for the full participation of all citizens in social life, and for an improved quality relationship between all people and physical objects and environments. Integral and inclusive Design for All can thus be seen as a way of quality engineering towards more social sustainability. It also seeks to blend beauty and elegance into these core considerations, away from stigma. Universal Design can be viewed as a broader and more ambitious positive response from the field of design theory and practice to the need for a human-made environment that is more accessible, useable and sustainable for a greater diversity of users in all stages of life.

The pragmatic part in your methodological approach is quite clear. However, this concept of elegance is somehow different from classical aesthetics we are so familiar with in the history of architecture.

Throughout my whole life the coupled experience of beauty and elegance in my dynamic interaction with physical objects and tools has been at the core of all my feelings and my thoughts. Visual perception of aesthetic elements is often meaningless for me as a person with a congenital limb deficiency as I was born with one hand. I don’t see myself as a victim of an intrinsic physical impairment, but rather as a student of disability. My condition gives me a specific perspective on interactions with tools and appliances. This role as a user/expert provides me with a better insight in both functional problems and in potential morphological solutions.  While this does not help me understand the functional problems of other conditions, I can share this knowledge with a variety of people, and learn from them. That is how a set of Universal Design Patterns might be formulated over time.

Beyond the social model of disability, we mentioned before, we see an upcoming ‘cultural model of disability’, where we do not only design for people with functional limitations, but we co-create with them. Who else can better help us to design a built environment with high multi-sensorial qualities, than people who are blind and constantly focus on these broader sensations beyond pure vision.

In conclusion, the appreciation of beauty and elegance, for example in a simple chair, grows over time, in frequent usage and observation by a great diversity of users. Beauty and elegance can eliminate stigma for people with disabilities, because their attitudes towards their disability, and their self-image, are directly affected by the quality, by the comfort of use, and by the social appreciation of their equipment.

Beauty and elegance can add to sustainability, because we have more concern for the objects and spaces we like.

What do you see as relevant future trends in Design for All/Universal Design?

After the first major European Universal Design 2012 conference in Oslo, the Norwegian Delta Center published a valuable anthology with global perspectives, theoretical aspects and real world applications. More than 20 written contributions were structured under three major trends:

  • from political initiatives and regulation to Innovation
  • from accessibility to Inclusion
  • from barriers to Sustainability

I believe all this summarises the post-war evolution from a perception of design for a minority of ‘disabled patients’ to mainstream design for ‘all citizens’. Innovation is a crucial drive for human well-being and for the economy; Inclusion relates to equal rights/equal opportunities; Sustainability guarantees quality of life for generations to come.

A lecturer and writer on Universal Design, he was interviewed for this article by architect Elke Ielegems, a doctoral student at Belgium’s Hasselt University where Froyen is guest professor.