What Is Universal Design?

16 Nov 2017
ByBernie W '23

What is universal design? Twelve seventh-grade engineers found out on Friday, November 10, during a trip to the Adaptive Design Association in Midtown Manhattan. The building looked like any other storefront, with big glass windows at the front. However, if you looked into the window you saw the many chairs, stools, desks, and standers made at Adaptive Design. And if you looked even closer, or if you knew as we did, you would realize that all of them were made of cardboard. Not normal cardboard, but tri-wall cardboard. Tri-wall is three-layer cardboard that is as strong as wood, but a fraction of the weight. After we were welcomed, we got right into talking about adaptive design and universal design. Adaptive design is adapted or modified to fit the needs of an individual. Universal design, however, is a design that can be used by practically anyone. Though the Adaptive Design Association specializes in adaptive design, universal design is also something they strive for.

After talking, we split into two groups of six. One person in each group played the role of a made-up person with a real-life problem. The rest of us played roles like teachers, friends, parents, and occupational therapists. Our goal was to figure out a way to solve one of the person's problems, to somehow improve their way of life. Each of us had a different thing to say, and each person had a list of questions that we had to keep in mind while designing some way of accommodating the person's situation. My group's challenge was to help a kid in a wheelchair be at the right height to be able to sit at his lunchroom tables, while the other group needed to help a deaf and blind kid be able to communicate better. We drew out some ideas on large pieces of paper, and had to convince someone from Adaptive Design that our ideas would work, or at least that we had thought about it carefully and tried our hardest.

After this was done we headed upstairs to the workshop. The workshop was full of tools of all kinds, and a lot of things that the people at Adaptive Design had made. They showed us some of the projects that they were working on and explained how they made them before we got to work. In groups of six, like before, we made rocking perches. These are boxes for people to sit on, with a rounded bottom edge. This allows the person sitting on it to rock back and forth a little, letting out some of their energy and helping them focus. They had already cut out the pieces of the rocking chair, so we took turns marking, gluing, scoring, and folding the pieces into a rocking perch. With the perches almost done we were led into another room for a pizza lunch. During lunch we watched a short video of a comedian with cerebral palsy trying to navigate New York City to find a bagel store. Though the video was very funny, it was also very sobering to realize how inaccessible the city really is.