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Raising Awareness of the Economic Advantages of Universal Design


Keynote Speech

CUU 2000 ACM Conference on Universal Usability

November 16, 2000

Michael Burks 



Good Morning,

I want to thank everyone for coming this morning.

I am sure that some of you are wondering who I am, and what I am doing here…

Well let me give you a brief history of how I got interested in the principles of Universal Design and how they apply to my everyday existence….

I work for AT&T WorldNet Service <http://www.worldnet.att.net > I have as part of my job responsibility for implementation of accessibility for electronic and information technology within AT&T and within WorldNet Service. I help support customers with disabilities and help to make sure our services are accessible to the largest audience possible. I have several disabilities so I am familiar with disability issues and accessibility of products and services on a first hand basis.

I am also a systems analyst and former programmer with 20 years experience so I am familiar with the processes involved with building and maintaining computer software.

I have been involved with the Internet Society <http://www.isoc.org>   for several years helping to raise the awareness of issues involved with people with disabilities accessing the Internet using Universal Design Principles as defined by the Seven Principles set forth by the Center for Universal Design at NCSU. <http://www.design.ncsu.edu:8120/cud/univ_design/princ_overview.htm >

My real interest in accessibility of computer products began when started to investigate the way people with disabilities use the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular. It is a fascinating journey that opened my eyes to a new world. A world I had never considered before and I am sure many others have not considered to this day.

I had barely begun this journey when I met Larry Trachtman of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University  < http://www.design.ncsu.edu/ > and he gave me my first taste of what Universal Design is, and what it can do. He took the time to help me gain a better understanding of the Principles of Universal Design and the way it could be used to make the Internet more accessible to the largest audience possible.

Shortly thereafter I was present when the W3C announced the Web Accessibility Initiative < http://www.w3.org?WAI  in San Jose, California, and I met a number of people who are prominent in the field of Universal Design.

As the WAI  progressed it became apparent to me that the Principles of Universal Design were having a significant and positive influence on the work being done at the W3C. As the work progressed, so did my interest in Universal Design.

It has also become apparent to me that the awareness of the Principles of Universal Design, and the advantages they offer is quite low amongst both the general public and the mainstream press. This is a state of affairs that all of us must work to change.


What Has Been Done

It has been a number of years since the principles of Universal Design were first articulated. There has been a huge amount of progress since then in every area in which Universal Design has been used.

But the technical implementation is only part of the problem. There is another area in which much remains to be done. This is the area of public awareness of the advantages of Universal Design, in particular the economic advantages to be gained from the use of Universal Design.

Let us first however talk about two well-known and topical design failures.

VCR Programming

How many people in here can program their VCR?

Voter Interfaces

A clear, clean, consistent voter interface implemented on a nationwide basis, could have prevented the recent confusion in our national election.


The amount work done to implement Universal Design in the last 30 years has been enormous. There is no question that there has been an impact on the design of Electronic and Information Technology as well as every other field touched by Universal Design. There have been many notable developments.

A. The articulation of the Principles of Universal Design By NCSU has clearly been responsible for the helping to create the successes of the Universal Design Principles  wherever they are used. The seven principles are listed below:

1. Equitable Use

2. Flexibility of Use

3. Simple and Intuitive

4. Perceptible Information

5. Tolerance for Error

6. Low Physical Effort

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

B. W3C WAI  and the Guidelines Developed have had a major impact on keeping many websites accessible to people with disabilities and is perhaps the de facto standard for developing accessible web sites.

C. The ISOC/UNESCO  Paper recently presented at the Info Ethics conference in Paris, which highlights the use of Universal Design principles to help erase the Digital Divide on a global basis. This is a case where the Principles of Universal Design are being brought to the table early in order to make sure they are incorporated into the process from the beginning. This is an effort by the Internet to Society to see that Universal Design Principles are used to help implement an “Internet for Everyone”.

These are all examples of how Universal Design has been used to improve products or services or to influence design efforts.

The Problem

However there is a huge problem that we have yet to solve. This problem has become excruciatingly apparent to me in the last 12 months. There is a lack of awareness of what Universal Design is, and what it costs to implement.

On four separate occasions that I have been involved in, the mistaken notion that Universal Design is difficult and expensive to implement has been used to try to slow down the implementation and deployment of accessible electronic and information technology for people with disabilities.

1. House Hearings on Web Accessibility in February of this year. There was a heavy emphasis on the myth that accessible web requires high bandwidth.

2. In the production of UN UNESCO paper presented on the Digital Divide, we again saw the mistaken notion that accessible web would require high bandwidth.

3. Congressional Subsidies of Cable Deployment were going to be tied to notion that accessibility requires high bandwidth.

4. There is a misunderstanding that accessibility applies only to people with disabilities and not to alternate access devices or those in an environment that has disabled one or more of their senses.  Understanding this, and applying the Principle of Universal Design to the design of alternate access devices will ensure the most economically advantages situation for both those who use them and those who produce and sell them  This is not yet understood by most manufacturers.

What Needs to Be Done

Let me define what I mean be economic advantages. It is apparent to me that products designed to be used by the largest audience possible are going to be the most cost effective products to design and produce. Designing separate products for different audiences is expensive and time consuming and surely lead to higher priced products with a smaller audience. Retrofitting products and services after their deployment is prohibitively expensive and can be obviously avoided by applying the principles of Universal Design to the original product or service.

I doubt that there is anyone in the audience that does not know this better than I do. The problem is that most of the general public does not know this and further more has little or no knowledge of what the principles of Universal Design are, and what their use can achieve.

The mainstream press is equally uniformed for the most part. However there may be some hope of this. Occasional articles appear here and there but I see no evidence of wide spread interest of knowledge in the application of Universal Design Principles. This must change.

In addition to regular market forces there is going to be ripple effect from of Section 508 on federal, state, and local governments as well as vendors to those markets. A great deal more can be learned about this subject if you visit the works of Cynthia Waddell < http://www.icdri.org/cynthia_waddell.htm >to be found on the ICDRI < http://www.icdri.org > web site.

Solutions for dispelling the low awareness of UD.

Follow-through on the commitment made last month by 25 U. S. Research Universities < http://www.icdri.org/dd_universitystudy_letter_sen.htm > to implement Universal Design coursework and expand research and education in the field of Universal Design and to insure that these universities provide accessible online resources.

Literature and emphasis on the ways Universal Design can produce easy to use Human to computer interfaces is desperately needed. It should be presented in a way the non-technical public can understand it. The average member of the public is a person who will use a computer but is not a power user, more likely than not they will be somewhat intimidated by the computer and the software. One of the challenges ahead is to make this interface easy to use and non-intimidating. A good way to help accomplish this to make people aware of Universal Design Principles and how they can make the interfaces that we all use to access computer technology easier to use and easier to understand. If the public understands this and there are genuine efforts by product manufacturers to incorporate their input into product design, then great progress will be made in this area.

Events to teach the public Universal Design is not expensive and has great advantages, such as the exhibit  last year at the Cooper Hewitt Museum at

Press coverage to shine the spotlight on Universal Design and Universal Design e fforts. The press needs to be educated on the application and advantages of Universal Design Principles. Hopefully the Digital Divide Supplement in the New York Times, which is to be published on November 20, will help to give Universal Design a wider audience.

Efforts to relate Universal Design and the “real” world to the public at large are needed as well. If the public understands the advantages they will gain if products and services are designed using Universal Design Principles, they can help increase the acceptance of these principles by placing pressure on companies that produce consumer goods and services to accept and use these principles.

Education of Decision Makers is critical to widening the use of Universal Design Principles in the design and deployment of accessible consumer products and services, especially those based on electronic and information technology. With their support there is a much better chance that Universal Design Principles will be accepted and implemented. Even though there has been some acceptance of these principles by some major corporations, there is still not enough use of the principles in the designing of products and services. In a letter to President Clinton < http://www.icdri.org/an_open_letter_on_accessibility_.htm > the CEO’s of 45 high tech companies have committed to providing more accessible products and services;  this is a prime market for the use of Universal Design.

Production of Papers on how to implement Universal Design and accessible products and services. While there are many people producing papers on the technical aspects of Universal Design and Accessibility, there are few resources available to help implement Universal Design and Accessibility. One such resource can be found in Cynthia Waddell’s works at: http://www.icdri.org/SL508overview.html 

. Many more papers and presentations are needed to help implement both Universal Design and accessibility into organizations in such a way that it becomes a normal part of the design and implementation process.

A program is needed for the education of legislators as to the economic advantages of Universal Design. It is important the legislators on all levels understand the value of Universal Design. They need to understand what it is, and how it can benefit everyone on both a technical level and an economic level. If we can bring them to a better understanding of what Universal Design is, and what it can do, then some of the myths surrounding Universal Design will no longer be a barrier to its implementation. A good example of this would be the Digital Signature Bill, which defined access in terms of hardware and software and failed to recognize web sites must be coded for accessibility in order for end users understand all the terms of the contracts into which they might be entering. Anyone who is interested in further information on this should check the http://www.icdri.org/questions_about_electronic_signa.htm  web site for the commentary on this law and the text of the Internet Society press release referring to the issues involved with this law. In addition to this when emailing legislators on this subject, it was found that the reply form used by many federal legislators was in itself inaccessible.

Education of the Technical Community is sorely needed. I can tell you that very few of the designers and programmers I talk to have ever heard of Universal Design. We need to make more effort to change this state of affairs. The greater the understanding that is existent in the technical community the greater the will be the implementation of Universal Design Principles in everyday products.

How Universal Design can help in standards development. As standards are developed in the field of electronic and information technology, it is important to develop these standards along the lines dictated by Universal Design Principles.  Just as was done recently with the HFES 200 Proposed standard for software user interfaces and as is being done now with the NCITS V2 Committee.

Education on How Universal Design Principles can help erase the Digital Divide. The Digital Divide is getting a good deal of press lately. This is a premier opportunity to make the public aware of how Universal Design can help to solve these problems in an economically feasible manner.

A comprehensive listing of products developed using Universal Design Principles would not only be of great help to the public at large, but would be useful to other designers.

A best practices collection for the Use and implementation of UD. To date as far as I know there is no best practices collection for those who are interested in implementing Universal Design Concepts. I would like to see a collection of the best practices in the field, collected and maintained by a board of recognized experts, and a tutorial that is available that gives a good overview of the concepts so everyone could understand the general concepts of Universal Design better.

I would like to see more ways to encourage the public to participate in the design process. From my experience the public has little input into the design of many products. Considering that they are the purchasers and users of these products this seems to me to be huge gap in the design process. I have some experience in retail sales and I can tell you that many members of the public are highly frustrated with the fact that they feel they have no input on product design and as a result the products do little to meet their needs. Whether or not this is true, is not important, what is important is that many people feel this is the truth. This needs to change and methods need to be developed that will allow more input by the public into product design. There needs to be an understanding that design must meet the users needs, standards are no good if they do not promote usable products. This is the role that Universal Design can fill. It can insure that the products that are designed are usable by the largest audience possible.

Acceptance and implementation of Universal Design Principles by Government and Corporate entities. This will require more than top-level acceptance and lip service to Universal Design Principles. For these principles to work they must be accepted and used in organizations in a pervasive manner. There is movement in this area in the form of the Section 508 rulemaking, various states across the country adopting accessible IT architecture, and the letter to President Clinton from the 45 CEOs. 

It is worth noting at this point, that as far as web accessibility goes most of this started from a pioneer movement directed by Cynthia Waddell in San Jose, California to make their websites accessible according to Universal Design Principles. However much more needs to happen.

What is Needed to further Document the Economic Advantages of Universal Design?

Case Studies on cost of implementation using Universal Design VS Cost of Retrofit.

I have been repeatedly challenged to provide this type of information. At this point in time, if such a case study exists, I have been unable to locate it. It would advance the cause of Universal Design implementation immensely if such a case study were to exist.

Case Studies on cost of Implementation with Universal Design VS Cost of Implementation without UD

In a similar vein I have been asked to provide this type of cost comparison and have been unable to do so. This type of information is important to convincing developers that Universal Design is the most cost effective method for producing products.

Case Studies on how great the market is for products and services developed using UD.

This information is needed to help designers and marketing experts to understand that products and services developed using the principles of Universal Design are the most cost effective and best-designed products that can be developed.


If these types information exist or can be developed, it would be some of the resources that could be collected and made available in a Universal Design Best Practices Collection. It would be made available to any and all who needed this sort of evidence and could serve to advance a wider understanding of Universal Design and its Principles.


Technical advances in the field of electronic and Information technology have been enormous. These advances have increased the need for wider use of the Principles of Universal Design to develop electronic and information technology that can be used by the largest audience possible, regardless of disability, language barriers or problems in the users immediate environment.

While the awareness of Universal Design and its use have increased in the technical community, there are only a few people outside of the technical community who are aware of Universal Design and how it can be used to improve everyone’s experience with electronic and information technology.

One of the most important tasks facing us all is to raise the awareness of advantages of Universal Design across the board to those who have the most to gain. Lets make Universal Design an integral part of every design process and to help build a world that is more accessible to everyone!



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