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On Earth Day, A Pause for Universal Design

April 22 2009 | by


Earth Day isn’t just about planting a tree. It’s a chance to remind ourselves and others about our responsibility to care for the environment for the next generation. When we talk about “green design,” such as emissions-friendly buildings, homes and cars, we’re not just talking about looking cool or doing our part. We’re actually taking steps — through design — to make our planet more sustainable. Interestingly, there is a parallel between the “green design” of products for the environment, and the “universal design” of products to be used by people with disabilities. Universal design is a framework for the design of products to be usable by the widest range of people in the widest range of situations. This includes, of course, people with disabilities. Where the green design movement addresses our core responsibility to the environment, the universal design movement starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user as he or she ages or becomes disabled. According to the Institute for Human Centered Design, green design focuses on environmental sustainability; universal design on social sustainability. However, the two movements are in different evolutionary stages. Green design is all the rage right now, helped by celebrities with hybrid cars. But product manufacturers (including the auto industry) are only starting to think about universal design and making products that everyone can use, regardless of ability or age. Look at the demographics in the U.S. and globally. People live longer than any other time in human history. In the U.S., that averages 30 years more life than 100 years ago. Globally, 650 million people live with disabilities of various types — many due to causes related to poverty. The U.S. has a responsibility to help less-developed nations be more socially sustainable. That’s why people like Scott Rains are traveling to Africa and Europe to educate governments about making travel accessible to everyone. Or why Jim Fruchterman and Gregg Vanderheiden have started the Raise the Floor initiative so that people without resources can have effective access to the the Internet as everyone else. And why the World Health Organization is producing a comprehensive report this year on how to address disability needs worldwide. Disability is a health issue. It’s a social issue. It’s an issue worth as much attention as Leo DiCaprio driving a Prius. Happy Earth Day!


  • Emily

    Awesome post! You make a very clear connection between green design and universal design. Thanks for sharing!

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