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Beyond Compliance: Why Universal Design Is Essential for Inclusive Organizations

May 20, 2024
A diagram including elements of universal design.


Workplace Scenario

Elaine is a highly skilled software engineer who recently joined a small tech company renowned for its cutting-edge products and innovative culture. She's excited about the opportunity to work on challenging projects and make a meaningful impact. However, Elaine quickly realizes that the organization has not fully adopted a universal design approach in its workplace practices and policies.

Elaine is visually impaired. As such, she encounters several obstacles in her daily work due to the lack of accessibility features and accommodations. Despite her qualifications and expertise, she faces significant challenges that hinder her productivity.

For example, the company's primary software development tools lack adequate accessibility features, making it difficult for Elaine to navigate code, debug applications, and collaborate with her team effectively. In addition, their UI (User Interface) elements are not properly labeled, making it impossible for Elaine to perform her tasks independently.

She also faces communication barriers. That is because the organization heavily relies on visual communication channels such as whiteboard sessions, diagrams, and charts during meetings and brainstorming sessions. Elaine struggles to fully participate in these discussions due to her visual impairment, as she cannot perceive the content being presented visually. As a result, she feels excluded from key decision-making processes and misses out on valuable opportunities to contribute her insights and expertise.

In addition, Elaine’s workspace is not ergonomically designed to accommodate her needs as a visually impaired employee. The lighting is inadequate, and the layout is cluttered, making it challenging for her to navigate the office independently and perform her tasks efficiently. Moreover, essential tools and resources she needs are often located in inaccessible areas, further exacerbating her sense of frustration and isolation.

The lack of universal design in the organization is significantly affecting Elaine’s job satisfaction, well-being, and, potentially, her professional growth. Despite her talents and dedication, she is struggling to thrive in an environment that fails to recognize and accommodate her unique needs as a person with a disability. As a result, Elaine's morale is declining, her productivity is suffering, and she is beginning to question her decision to join the company.

What can this organization do?


What is Universal Design?

Universal design is an approach to design that aims to create products, buildings, environments, and systems that are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Universal design aims to ensure inclusion and accessibility for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or other characteristics.

The benefits of universal design are numerous. For example:

  1. It ensures that everyone, regardless of age, ability, or other characteristics, can access and use products, environments, and systems.
  2.  It results in cost savings over time, as it reduces the need for retrofits and specialized adaptations.
  3.  By appealing to a broader range of users, universal design principles allow organizations to tap into larger markets and increase their competitiveness.
  4.  It leads to greater user satisfaction, as it reduces barriers and frustrations associated with inaccessible design.
  5.  It demonstrates an organization’s commitment to social responsibility and inclusivity, contributing to a more equitable society.
  6.  Environments that incorporate universal design principles are better equipped to accommodate changing demographics and evolving user needs over time.


Universal design is a philosophy that seeks to create products, environments, and systems that are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

It goes beyond mere accessibility for people with disabilities. It aims to enhance usability and inclusivity for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or background.

Overall, universal design not only removes barriers for individuals with disabilities but also benefits a wider range of users, resulting in a more welcoming and accommodating world for everyone.


Solution to the Scenario

To address Elaine's challenges and foster a more inclusive work environment, the organization recognized it needed to prioritize the implementation of universal design principles across its practices and policies.

Here was their plan of action:

  1. Conducted an accessibility assessment of the physical workspace so they could make the necessary modifications to improve navigation, lighting, and access to essential resources.
  2.  Invested in accessible software tools and technologies that support screen readers, keyboard navigation, and other assistive technologies.
  3.  Provided alternative communication channels and formats (e.g., verbal descriptions, and audio recordings) to ensure that all employees, including those with disabilities, can fully participate in meetings and collaborative activities.
  4.  Provided training and education to employees and managers on disability awareness, inclusive communication, and the benefits of universal design.
  5.  Established policies and procedures that promoted equal opportunities, reasonable accommodations, and proactive support for employees with disabilities.

By embracing universal design principles, Elaine’s organization was able to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture where all employees, regardless of their abilities, could thrive and contribute their unique talents and perspectives to the company's success.



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