Universalism, universal design and equitable access to the built environment

Imrie, Rob. 2012. Universalism, universal design and equitable access to the built environment. Disability and Rehabilitation, 34(10), pp. 873-882. ISSN 0963-8288 [Article]

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Abstract or Description


The concept of universal design (UD) has acquired global significance and become orthodoxy of what is presented as the very best of design practice. This is despite limited evaluation of the theoretical content of the concept. This article seeks to redress this shortfall in knowledge by providing a critique of the theoretical and conceptual components that underpin the principles of universal design.


The content of UD appears to be reductive and functionalist, with an appeal to discourses of technical flexibility, or the notion that the problems confronting disabled people by poorly designed built environments may be redressed by recourse to technical and management solutions. UD is characterized by its advocation of the marketization of access as the primary means to ensure the accessibility of products, including the built environment. This has the potential to reduce the "right to access" to a right to be exercised through a market presence or transaction. There is also lack of clarity about what advocates of UD understand universalism to be, as illustrated by evidence of some ambivalence towards specialist or particular design solutions.

UD provides a useful, yet partial, understanding of the interrelationships between disability and design that may limit how far inequalities of access to the built environment can be overcome.

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Date Deposited:

25 Oct 2013 09:19

Last Modified:

07 Jul 2017 09:37

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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