Universal Design vs. Accessible Design

Universal design is more than a trend.

It’s a design process that is arguably the best approach to designing things (places, products, and programs) that are accessible and user-friendly for the entire population.

Take a look at the illustrations below.

image universal design applies to just about everyone the general population including those living with disability

(Concept credit: Esther Greenhouse)

The green circle indicates segments of the population that universal design benefits immediately, which is almost everyone. Some circles extend beyond the direct “focus” of universal design. Thing is, there are people in our society that may have needs/abilities that the universal design process can’t fully accommodate. That’s okay. If universal design is the foundation for how something is designed, it will be easy to tweak and add onto for specific needs.

Don’t confuse universal design with accessible design.

Note the blue outline on the illustration below. Accessible design is segregating, as it identifies two categories: (1) people with disabilities and (2) people without disabilities. Universal design is about access and usability for everyone, regardless if a disability is present or not.

accessible design applies to the population with disabilities resulting in segregation

We share the same view as the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health from the World Health Organization (WHO), which acknowledges that every human being can experience a decrease in health.

In other words, if your health decreases, you’ll likely discover that you have some functional limitations. That’s what we care about, regardless of how that’s labeled or categorized. The concept of “disability” is not exclusive to a minority.


Universal design is not JUST for designing for “wheelchair access,” or planning a “special needs” program. It’s designing for the population as a whole, which includes those young and old, short and tall, and those with a variety of abilities. Universal design is SO much more than just a good idea – it’s important for social sustainability, increased community participation, and provides optimized usability of places we go, products we use, and programs we participate in.

Published by

Sarah Pruett

Sarah is a registered/licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L) and a Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS), with a background in physical rehabilitation.

  • TERRIFIC. Thank you for updating my concept with these diagrams. This will be an informative and helpful piece.

    • Thanks Esther! We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of these diagrams in local presentations and discussions. They’ve been a huge help and we’re grateful for your insight!