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Universal Design

Question: How can universal design and universal strategies assist a company to attract and keep a diverse workforce and customer base?

Question: What is universal design, and how can it benefit a business?

By Christopher Button, PhD, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, October 2007

Good customer service means providing a welcoming environment, respectful treatment and needed information. Universal Design provides an important toolset for companies seeking to provide these advantages for their customers and for their employees, who also want to feel welcome and respected, and who require adequate and timely information to do their jobs.

Universal Design (UD) is a strategy for making products, environments, operational systems and services welcoming and usable to the most diverse range of people possible. Its key principles are simplicity, flexibility and efficiency. And whether we realize it or not, most of us benefit from UD on a daily basis.

Originally developed in response to the needs of the aging population and people with disabilities, UD has much broader applicability. UD increases ease of access to products, places and services for multiple, diverse populations. Using UD means that facilities, programs, and services take into account the broad range of abilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, languages, and cultures in their diverse workforce and customer base. While diversity brings experience, perspective, and stability to a workplace, it also means that employees and customers have a wider variety of needs and expectations.

Universal Design is a lens through which every aspect of a business can be viewed, and a set of tools by which products, services, customer satisfaction and employee attraction and retention can be improved. UD in the workplace can be applied in areas related to products, services, the physical environment, communications and technology.

Physical Environment

Most people benefit from examples of UD in the physical environment every day. For example, where sidewalk curbs used to be sharp drop-offs to the street, they are now cut to a sloping grade. "Curb cuts," as they are called, were originally designed for people who use wheelchairs to get on and off sidewalks, but they are routinely used to improve the safety and experience of people pushing strollers or carts, and even bikes!


UD in the area of communication means that workplace communications practices or systems are useable by a majority of job candidates and employees. Consider the hiring process. Application forms and pre-employment tests can be available in various formats, including large-print, which is helpful not only to a candidate with low vision but also to senior workers.

It is well known that different people have different learning styles. During training, organizations that provide large-print handouts, information on disks, oral explanations of PowerPoint® graphics, and a mixture of visual, auditory, and written learning opportunities ensure that training opportunities are inclusive not only for employees with disabilities but also for individuals with different learning styles or language proficiencies.


Technical equipment with UD features can also help employers create a welcoming workplace. For example, phones are increasingly designed with simpler interfaces, larger buttons, handsets, and shoulder braces. Cell phones often have voice recognition technology for those who have difficulty using standard buttons, or simply find it more convenient, especially while driving or typing. Manufacturers are now integrating UD principles into their newest products, making it easier for businesses to meet the diverse wants and needs of their employees and customers. Using these products can give employers a competitive advantage — by increasing efficiency and attracting top talent seeking to use state-of-the-art technology.

Examples of Universal Design

An ironworks shop in Montana is an example of UD in action. When the shop lowered all of its work tables to an appropriate height for a skilled blacksmith who uses a wheelchair, everyone benefited. Employees who previously had to stand throughout the day and who were uncomfortable at the "average" higher tables, and customers visiting the shop to view work in progress have all thanked the shop's owner for the change.

Another example of UD is having flexible management operations. Management structures using teams with a designated lead who focuses on a given issue and encourages employee collaboration have produced a more satisfying work environment for employees, and more innovative products and services to meet the needs of their customers.

Finally, the rise of telework as an option has proven to be a great example of UD. Business models have become flexible and sometimes allow employees to customize their own space and means of working entirely to their needs. Employees can be equally effective in their offices or their homes and, as such, are both more satisfied with their work life, and more productive.


Designing inclusive workplace environments, policies and practices that consider employees of all abilities helps employers attract and retain a competitive workforce. What's more, adopting a UD approach can benefit existing staff, improving overall productivity and morale, and providing an inclusive business environment for customers of diverse backgrounds, needs, and abilities — ultimately resulting in increased profitability and success. More information about UD is available from the U. S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network.

Christopher Button is a supervisory policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Dr. Button's 35-year career in the disability arena includes work as a legislative aide on disability policy in the U. S. Senate and as senior manager with a national disability nonprofit organization. She has also worked as a special education teacher, school administrator and university instructor.