Universal Design and the Spirit of the ADA

Don’t be fooled by watered-down versions of disability history: the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was radical. Amidst a world that is designed primarily to suit the convenience of able-bodied, neurotypical people, a law that focused on making it accessible to people with disabilities did not float naturally into the public sphere. Its history is a mosaic of the work of thousands of disabled activists who worked long before its adoption toward rights for themselves and for future generations.

It would be nice to write about going beyond the explicit text of the ADA without having to acknowledge that, to this day, the ADA is questioned and threatened. Earlier this year, the passage of H.R. 620 loosened the requirements of ADA compliance, allowing businesses to maintain access barriers indefinitely until someone who knows how to goes to the trouble of reporting it, after which point there will still be months before the business is legally accountable for removing the barrier.

Fortunately, the spirit of the ADA and a key principle that may uphold it yet are one in the same: universal design. As the name implies, universal design involves designing things in a way that is universally accessible, rather than in a way that only considers the accessibility needs of nondisabled people. An elevator or ramp might serve as an everyday example of universal design. In addition to being accessible to people who use wheelchairs or others with mobility-related support needs, elevators and ramps can be used by anyone with or without a disability. And as anyone who has ever hauled a heavy suitcase can tell you, they’re often pretty useful!

Incorporating aspects of universal design into home, educational, and community environments whenever possible allows people with various disabilities to participate fully in daily life without having to wait for accommodations to be available. This shift can facilitate more seamless inclusion and can set the precedent for intentionally creating accessibility in all aspects of everyday life. We can look at the five foundations for ideas about potential accommodations that can be incorporated universally.

Sensory Integration:
Creating a “sensory area” with stim toys, weighted objects, and other materials to help with sensory integration enables everyone to meet their own sensory needs – and to get a better understanding of what those needs may be.
Offering a place for sensory destimulation, such as a quiet/rest area, also allows people to meet a set of sensory needs and supports them in maintaining a more comfortable inner space throughout the day.
Scheduling gross motor movement opportunities throughout the day is a healthy idea for many people’s bodies and can provide much-needed sensory stimulation, especially for neurodivergent people.

Executive Function:
Posting a schedule for the home or classroom can help everyone know what to expect and feel more organized.
Including “warnings” before transitioning to a new activity gives people time to wrap up what they are working on, feel more prepared for an upcoming task, and adjust to the upcoming change.
Padding in extra time between and within activities leaves opportunities for things to take longer, and for people to take extra time when they need it, without unraveling the entire schedule.

Offering alternatives to verbal communication (such as writing answers or using signs) can be helpful for people who are not verbal 100% of the time as well as for those who are shy or more introverted.
Alternative methods of professional communication, like email, text message, or chat-based communication, enable people with different schedules, levels of phone comfort, verbal abilities, and more to communicate in the way that suits them best.
Maintaining an “open door policy” with an ongoing way for people to communicate with you (or leave you a message) leaves a way for people who may not have thought of everything they wanted to say in the moment to still feel heard and have questions answered.
Giving clear, concrete directions through a variety of media (including spoken words, written words, images, and/or examples) provides ample opportunities to understand and follow along.

Social Interaction:
Color communication badges or other symbols of readiness/desire for social interaction can help everyone to stay comfortable with social interaction – and to interact in ways that feel manageable for others
Offering a “cool down” area where people can go for a break from socialization allows everyone to socialize on their terms.

Emotional Regulation:
Share your own feelings and model your own coping skills whenever possible.
Post strategies for coping with various emotions, and resources for doing so, in an accessible place.

Try to brainstorm other ways to strive for universal design relative to the five foundations and beyond! In this time of straw bans, H.R. 620, and other attacks on disability rights, each one of us must do our part to actively promote accessibility for all in the ways we are able.