top of page

Universal Design Meets Occupational Therapy: A Powerful Duo for Inclusivity

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that focuses on helping people of all ages to engage in meaningful activities to promote health, well-being, and independence. Universal design, on the other hand, is a design approach that aims to create products, environments, and systems that are accessible and usable by people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. When occupational therapy and universal design come together, they can transform how we approach daily living, making it more inclusive, equitable, and empowering for everyone.

This post aims to explore principles of universal design and how occupational therapists can use these principles to design interventions and strategies that are inclusive and accommodating to all individuals.

Understanding Universal Design and Occupational Therapy

Universal design is a design philosophy that aims to make things accessible to everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or background. It is about creating products, buildings, and systems that are easy to use and understand. This concept aims to make the world and our spaces more inclusive and accessible for everyone. Let’s look at the seven universal design principles and some examples of how an occupational therapist may incorporate them into occupational therapy practice.

"Occupational therapy and universal design go hand in hand, creating a world where everyone can participate and thrive."

Principle 1 - Equitable Use: Ensure designs are accessible and useful to people with diverse abilities (Universal Design, n.d.).

Example: An occupational therapist working with a client with limited hand strength and dexterity might be interested in designing new adaptive utensils for eating, such as utensils with unique features to build up handles or angled forks and spoons. These adaptations make it easier for the client to grasp and manipulate the utensils, allowing them to eat independently and participate more fully in mealtime activities. These specialized adaptive utensils may also benefit individuals, including those with arthritis, by easing discomfort and improving their ability to eat independently; stroke survivors by providing support and stability for better mealtime independence; and children with developmental disabilities by simplifying self-feeding and promoting their development.

Binder with the words increasing accessibility for everyone written on it.

Principle 2 - Flexibility in Use: Accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities (Universal Design, 2021).

Example: An occupational therapist may work with clients with varying cognitive ability levels and attention span due to conditions like traumatic brain injury, dementia, or ADHD. To accommodate these diverse needs, the therapist could design a memory-enhancing activity that offers multiple difficulty levels and engagement. This might involve creating a matching game with different sets of cards, varying from simple shapes and colours for those with lower cognitive ability to more complex images or words for clients with higher cognitive function. Clients can choose the set that best suits their needs and preferences, ensuring everyone can participate and benefit from the activity.

Principle 3 - Simple and Intuitive Use: Make designs easy to understand and use, regardless of the user's experience or knowledge (Universal Design, n.d.).

Example: An occupational therapist is working with a client and recommends installing grab bars to assist with getting in and out of the bathtub. The occupational therapist should suggest placing them in locations that are intuitively easy to reach and use. This may involve positioning the grab bars horizontally at a comfortable height alongside the client so they can naturally reach for them while standing or sitting.

Similarly, when working with a client with perceptual impairments, an occupational therapist should recommend a shower chair or bench design that is straightforward to understand. The therapist might suggest a shower chair with a simple, stable design with minimal adjustments, making it less complicated for the client to use. The occupational therapist may also recommend securing the chair in a fixed position or using a bench built into the shower to minimize confusion with its placement and stability. This ensures the client can use the chair safely and with minimal assistance.

A beach with a ramp for wheelchairs so that wheelchair users can enjoy the sand.

Principle 4 - Perceptible Information: Communicate necessary information effectively, regardless of the user's sensory abilities (Universal Design, 2021).

Example: When working with a client with a visual impairment, the occupational therapist might need to teach them how to navigate their home safely and independently. Instead of relying solely on visual cues, the therapist could use a combination of tactile, auditory, and verbal strategies to convey information effectively.

In this case, the therapist might:

  1. Create tactile markers: Place textured or raised stickers on key points throughout the client's home, such as light switches, door handles, and appliance controls, to help the client identify and locate these items through touch.

  2. Use verbal descriptions: Provide clear and detailed verbal instructions to guide the client through specific tasks or describe their living space layout. This could include explaining the location of furniture, the direction of doors, and the steps involved in completing a task.

  3. Incorporate auditory cues: Recommend using auditory devices or tools, such as talking clocks, timers, or appliances with audible alerts, to help the client receive necessary information through sound.

By utilizing various communication methods tailored to the client's sensory abilities, occupational therapists can effectively convey crucial information and support their client's independence and safety.

A person sitting in a wheelchair at the bottom of a set of stairs. There is no ramp and she wonders how she will get up.

Principle 5 - Tolerance for Error: Minimize hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions (Universal Design, n.d.).

Example: Imagine an occupational therapist working with local transportation authorities to tackle the problem of gaps between subway cars and platforms, which pose a risk to wheelchair users due to potential wheel entrapment. The therapist advocates for change by suggesting the implementation of gap fillers, collaborating with transportation staff to increase awareness, providing training on assisting passengers with mobility impairments, and promoting improved subway car designs.

Principle 6 - Low Physical Effort: Allow users to interact with the design efficiently and comfortably (Universal Design, 2021).

Example: An occupational therapist can incorporate this principle when designing a new ramp for a client's home front entrance by focusing on features that enable users to interact with the ramp efficiently and comfortably, minimizing strain and fatigue.

To achieve this, the therapist might consider the following elements in the ramp design:

  1. Appropriate slope: Design the ramp with a gentle slope that complies with accessibility guidelines, making it easier for users to navigate the ramp with less effort, regardless of whether they use a wheelchair, walker, or other mobility aids.

  2. Non-slip surface: Choose a ramp material with a non-slip surface to provide traction and prevent slipping, ensuring that users can safely and confidently navigate the ramp in various weather conditions.

  3. Handrails: Install sturdy handrails on both sides of the ramp to provide additional support and stability for users, allowing them to maintain balance and control while ascending or descending the ramp.

  4. Adequate width: Ensure that the ramp is wide enough to accommodate various mobility aids and allow users to maneuver comfortably and efficiently.

"Occupational therapy helps individuals achieve their full potential, and universal design ensures that potential is not limited by their environment."

Principle 7 - Size and Space for Approach and Use: Provide appropriate space for users, regardless of their body size, posture, or mobility (Universal Design, 2021).

Example: An occupational therapist can incorporate this principle when designing a new patio area for a community centre. One important design element is to ensure that the pathways leading to the patio are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs of different widths and allow users to maneuver comfortably. This can help to prevent accidents and make the space more welcoming to users with mobility challenges.

A bathroom design with universal design principles. It is open and accessible.

Another important design element is to provide adequate clearance space around tables and chairs. This will allow wheelchair users to approach and use the furniture comfortably, without feeling cramped or restricted. Offering tables and chairs that are adjustable in height can also help to accommodate users of different heights and postures, making the space more inclusive and accommodating to everyone.

For users who have limited mobility, installing ramps and lifts can provide essential access to the patio. This can help to make the space more welcoming and accommodating to users who may have difficulty navigating stairs or other obstacles. It’s also important to use a non-slip surface on the patio can help to ensure safety and prevent accidents, especially in wet or slippery conditions.

The Role of Occupational Therapists in Universal Design

Occupational therapists have a unique responsibility to promote accessibility and inclusion in all aspects of daily life, through universal design principles. Some of the responsibilities of occupational therapists in universal design include:

  1. Assessing the needs of individuals: Occupational therapists are responsible for assessing the needs of individuals and identifying potential barriers to accessibility and usability. This may include evaluating the individual's physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities, as well as their environment and the tools they use.

  2. Identifying appropriate solutions: Based on their assessment, occupational therapists are responsible for identifying appropriate solutions that promote accessibility and usability. This may include designing custom interventions, recommending assistive technology devices, and modifying environments to make them more accessible.

  3. Collaborating with other professionals: Occupational therapists often work collaboratively with other professionals, such as architects, engineers, and designers, to ensure that the built environment and products are accessible and usable for all individuals.

  4. Advocating for universal design: Occupational therapists are responsible for advocating for universal design principles and promoting awareness of the importance of accessibility and inclusion in all settings. This may involve advocating for policy changes, promoting education and training, and engaging with stakeholders to promote change.

(Young et. al, 2019)

Challenges and Barriers to Implementing Universal Design

While universal design has the potential to enhance the accessibility and usability of products, environments, and systems, there are also challenges and barriers to its implementation in occupational therapy. Some of the main challenges and barriers include:

  1. Limited awareness and understanding: Many individuals, including healthcare professionals, may have limited awareness and understanding of universal design principles. Although universal design is intended to benefit everyone, it is often perceived as being only for people with disabilities. This lack of understanding and awareness can hinder the adoption and implementation of universal design in the industry and among the public.

  2. Cost and resources: Implementing universal design can require additional resources and investment. For example, designing a building with wider hallways, doorways, and accessible bathrooms can increase construction costs, which may not be feasible for some organizations or individuals. Retrofitting existing environments can also lead to interruptions or delays in using the space, which can further impact costs.

  3. Existing infrastructure: In some cases, existing infrastructure and built environments may not be conducive to universal design, making it difficult to implement in certain settings. Additionally, there needs to be more widespread adoption of universal design principles in new home construction. While public buildings are subject to regulations that support accessible environments, private homes often are not.

  4. Resistance to change: Social attitudes towards disability can act as a barrier to the implementation of universal design. Some individuals or organizations may resist change, even if it is in the interest of accessibility and inclusivity. Unfortunately, in some cases, people may view universal design as a burden rather than an opportunity, as consumer demand for universal design may be limited. Overcoming resistance to change may require education, awareness-raising, strong leadership, and advocacy for universal design principles.

  5. Lack of collaboration and coordination: Implementing universal design requires collaboration and coordination among various stakeholders, including architects, engineers, designers, policy-makers, and end-users. A lack of coordination and communication can hinder progress and lead to fragmented implementation of universal design. To ensure that universal design is fully integrated into the design process, all stakeholders must work together and communicate effectively.

(Bringolf, 2010)

A man cleans his dishes with a wall mounted sink. His wheelchair and legs fit underneath the sink.

Key Takeaway

The combination of occupational therapy and universal design principles can lead to a more inclusive and empowering approach to daily living for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Occupational therapists have a unique responsibility to promote accessibility and inclusion in all aspects of daily life through universal design principles. They can assess individual needs, identify appropriate solutions, and collaborate with other professionals to ensure that products, environments, and systems are accessible and usable for all.

"Universal design is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather an inclusive approach that celebrates diversity and empowers individuals."



bottom of page