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Disability and Public Spaces: Universal Design Approaches

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Disability Studies in India


This chapter is located at the intersection of disability, society and design in the Indian context. Beginning by examining the systems model of disability, it explores how this model, like other models such as the medical model and the social model of disability, is underwritten by different kinds of cultural and historical determinants and is a powerful ideology that constructs categories of identity. Further, the paper explains how information available and conformity with the model and a universal design approach may have a critical bearing on design decisions, processes, the action that is taken and even social policies that are framed. Designers could substantially gain from these insights, but often falter because the concerns of disability studies are every so often rendered invisible in ableist design thinking. The chapter illustrates how the canvas of design is often limited in its interface with disability. It also underscores the need to incorporate the unique concerns and experiences of disabled people in design thinking and practice, and having a universal design approach to enrich the fields of design practice, design education and the field of Disability Studies in India.

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  1. 1.

    ‘Towards a Common Language for Functioning, Disability and Health: ICF’, published by WHO in 2002 reiterates this point.

  2. 2.

    Architect and product designer, Ron Mace promoted and championed the cause of universal design in the US. He urged for a shift in design from accessibility of buildings towards designs usable by people of all ages and abilities, therefore more universal. The seven principles of universal design as laid out by the Center for Universal Design which Mace established are equitable use (the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities); flexibility in use (the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities); simple and intuitive to use (use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language, skill or current concentration level); perceptible information (the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities); tolerance for error (the design minimizes hazards or the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions); low physical effort (the design can be used efficiently and effectively with a minimum of fatigue) and size and space for approach and use (appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility). Thus, universal design can be defined as ‘the design of entities that can be used and experienced by people of all abilities, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptations (Erlandson 2008: 17)’.

  3. 3.

    This definition fuses the CUD definitions given by Ron Mace (2008) and Vanderheiden (2009) which is cited in Nussbaumer, 29).

  4. 4.

    Assistive devices help people with disabilities achieve independence. These include mobility aids such as wheelchairs, walking sticks, crutches and walkers and toileting aids like raised seats and grab bars. Generally developed as healthcare products, assistive devices often have a clinical appearance. Industrial designers, in such projects, tend to have a medical approach to disability and focus on formal aspects, material selection, technical detailing, simplifying the technological aspects, motion dynamics or work on ergonomical aspects.

  5. 5.

    This problem is however faced not only by disabled people but also by many sections of society such as the elderly, pregnant women, children and temporarily incapacitated people.

    Provisions and regulations for providing features of accessibility for people with disabilities are guided by two items of national regulations: the National Building Code of India and the IS: 4963-1968: Recommendations for Buildings and Facilities for the Physically Handicapped. Many states, union territories and city development authorities have provisions and by-laws.

  6. 6.

    There are also guidelines and space standards for barrier-free built environment for disabled and elderly persons issued by the CPWD, Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment.


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Correspondence to Shilpa Das .

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Das, S. (2020). Disability and Public Spaces: Universal Design Approaches. In: Mehrotra, N. (eds) Disability Studies in India . Springer, Singapore.

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  • Print ISBN: 978-981-15-2615-2

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