Designing inclusive environments: rehabilitating the body and the relevance of universal design

Imrie, Rob and Luck, Rachael (2014). Designing inclusive environments: rehabilitating the body and the relevance of universal design. Disability and Rehabilitation, 36(16) pp. 1315–1319.



The papers in this issue reflect participants' disquiet with the theoretical and conceptual content of universal design, and the epistemological and methodological bases shaping its understanding of disability and design. What seems to dominate is a positivistic, scientific, tradition, placing emphasis on the production of technical, objective, knowledge and its applications. Here, a dominant focus is process-based techniques, and the evaluation of universal design in relation to issues of technical feasibility and operational outcomes. There is less evidence of the deployment of alternative epistemological frameworks by proponents of universal design, and limited engagement with moral and political philosophy, or substantive matters that relate to the interrelationships between design and people's flourishing and suffering within the world. There is also vagueness, in some of the literature, about key terms underpinning universal design, such as "universal" and "universalism", and seminar participants were keen to explore the content of such foundational concepts, and their role in shaping universal design discourse.

In the rest of this editorial, we outline some of the key challenges relating to the development of universal design, and discuss how far it may be possible to realise its radical intent in seeking to overturn deep rooted designer conventions that rarely respond to the needs of disabled people and impaired bodies. We draw attention to the tensions between, on the one hand, the propagation of a universal design discourse that is challenging of design approaches that fail to respond to corporeal diversity, and on, on the other hand, the incorporation of much universal design practice into conventions,a conservative design methodologies. Such methodologies, and their underlying epistemological bases, appear to delimit the understanding of person-hood to bodies-without-impairment, or cultural norms that define the universal subject in ways whereby disabled people are regarded as aberrations. This observation leads contributors to the special issue to interrogate how far, and in what ways, practitioners may be able to develop universal design not only as a "design strategy", but as a political stratagem that has the potential to transform the dominant world view of universal ablebodiedness.

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