written by

Michael Woods (He/Him)

Using Universal Design to Embrace Difference in Sport Planning

In this post you will learn:

  • What Universal design is
  • The 7 Principals of Universal Design
  • Examples of Universal Design in Sport and active recreation

At the end of the post I will provide some additional resources to help you put things into action.

What is universal design?

Universal design is the process of designing products and environments that can be used by as many people as possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Universal Design principles steer away from the idea that barriers need to be removed or that people require extra help or skills to navigate their environment. While the outcomes of the universal design approach have clear benefits for inclusion of people with disability the intention is to assist everyone.

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Ron Mace

Who is Ron Mace?

The aim of universal design is to provide one solution that can accommodate all people in the community. This includes the needs of people with disability, older adults, children and young people, women and men and people who are left handed or right handed. Everyone, including you and me.

You can watch our quick explainer video below.

Universal Design vs Accessible Design

Access’ and ‘accessibility’ is largely concerned with fulfilling a set of measurable requirements (technical notes and specifications) as prescribed in legislative requirements such as the Building Code of Australia and other relevant standards. This often results in ‘accessible’ features being “added on” or incorporated retrospectively and often as an afterthought rather than as part of the design process. The installation of specialised features such as lifts and ramps to pre-existing facilities is an example of accessible design. While these types of installations may create improved access in the what happens if they break down or a rendered unusable for some reason? A dependence on these can render an entire building inaccessible to sections of the community.

Universal Design separates itself from accessible design by focusing on user-centred design from the earliest stages of a project, rather than just at the end stage. This results in the seamless integration of inclusive features that are in many cases invisible and does not stigmatise or separate users, and ensures that the experience of a building is shared by as many people as possible. [Source]

The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. [Source]

What are the principles of universal design?

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University. The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications.

The Principles of Universal Design provide guide a wide range of design disciplines including environments, products, and communications. These seven principles may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments. This applies to the design of sport equipment, activities and environments.

Something to note though, is that not all guidelines may be relevant to all designs.

PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


1a. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
1b. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
1c. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
1d. Make the design appealing to all users.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


2a. Provide choice in methods of use.
2b. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.
2c. Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.
2d. Provide adaptability to the user's pace.

PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


3a. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
3b. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
3c. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
3d. Arrange information consistent with its importance.
3e. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.


4a. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
4b. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
4c. Maximize "legibility" of essential information.
4d. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
4e. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


5a. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
5b. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
5c. Provide fail safe features.
5d. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.


6a. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
6b. Use reasonable operating forces.
6c. Minimize repetitive actions.
6d. Minimize sustained physical effort.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: 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.


7a. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
7b. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
7c. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
7d. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

For some real examples of Universal Design in action click here.

Designing to the edges

Here’s a great talk from Merrilee Barnes at the 2016 Diversity and Inclusion in Sport Forum (I highly recommend this forum by the way – there’s a link on the resources page here). Merrilee Barnes talks about applying Universal Design in sport and uses some great examples. You can also view this video at the Play by the Rules website here.

Real examples from sport & active recreation

Further resources

[Acknowledgement: The resources listed above were used as source material for this post.]

Do you know any great examples of Universal Design in sport? Head over to the ISD Community Group and share.

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