Universal Design in Communications

Universal Design and Communications

Don’t Confuse Section 508 Compliance with Universal Design

It is not appropriate to equate Section 508 compliance to Universal Design. Universal design is not a synonym for 508-compliance or disability-specific design. A misnomer about Universal Design is that it is a way to create or design specifically to include and serve persons with disabilities.

This is not the case.

Universal Design is not a specialized design for one individual’s needs. Instead, it combines features that help people who may have different needs and preferences.

Think of Universal Design more like a process rather than a specific product. It is a way to thinking about what you are creating. Universal Design is the process and approach you use to arrive at producing a widely used and accessible piece of information, product, or space.

This thinking process leads to a more accessible and more inclusive result. This is the goal of Universal Design.

Improper Assumption #1

The goal of Universal Design is to be 100% inclusive.

To be inclusive is a worthy and laudable goal. This goal does not mean it will serve everyone. Creators may shy away from using Universal Design because they believe that the design must be 100 percent appropriate and accessible to everyone. Of course, the process encourages the design to consider the needs of as many as possible. Still, it does not mean the product can serve everyone’s needs equally.

Improper Assumption #2

Universal Design is too costly and time-intensive and therefore not a practical design model.

It is true that the Universal Design approach requires a more significant time commitment in the design phase and higher costs upfront. However, consider how Universal Design can save time and financial resources in the long run. Rather than being reactive. Universal Design is proactive. Something created with a Universal Design approach will not have to react to every individual’s needs when the situation arises. The Universal Design approach takes multiple needs into consideration at the beginning.

This upfront approach ultimately saves on costly adaptations that would be required later.

Here is an example related to accessible spaces. A building designed to be inclusive from the start is usually only one to three percent more expensive than a non-inclusive building. However, retroactively modifying the building to be inclusive may have a significantly higher cost.

In Practice: Using Universal Design to Improve Access to Information

The two most common categories discussed in Universal Design are:

  • Adapting spaces (e.g., ramps in hotels to assist the elderly and people who use wheelchairs) and
  • Modifying products (e.g., a desk that is adjustable for a person who uses a wheelchair).

One category that is often less emphasized but very important to discuss in a development context is how to design communication to be more accessible to different groups. This can include designing inclusive communication tools for deaf or hard of hearing, people with learning disabilities, or language minorities.

Here are seven principles of Universal Design that can help to guide you when creating a document or an item with the focus to communicate.

  • Equitable Use

Create to include and not exclude. This simple principle starts first with an awareness of what this could mean for your communication item.

  • Flexibility in Use

Make it flexible so that people in different situations can still gain from your communication.

  • Simple and Intuitive Use

If a decision must be made, then err on the side of keeping it simple.

  • Easy to Perceive Information

Make your points clear and easy to understand.

  • Tolerance for Error

If someone does not understand or simply makes a mistake does your upfront effort accommodate the mistake. For example, if someone must fill out a form on your website that has 10 input fields, and they make a mistake filling out one field does your form inform them of their mistake? Does your form require them to not only fix the mistake but forces them to fill out the entire form again?

  • Low Effort

Small font increases the effort. Low contrast increases the effort. Poorly structured content increases the effort. These items are true for all people.

  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

Consider what assistive devices someone might use. Have you created a written communication piece that meshes well with a text-speech tool? Should your video also have subtitles? Should your audio have a downloadable transcript?

Communicating with symbols and visual images is an excellent way to provide greater accessibility for individuals with varying language abilities.

Symbol-based communication helps the communication process. How does symbol-based communication fit into the communication process? Let’s review augmentation and alternatives.


To augment something means to add to or to enhance. For example, both professional and non-professional presenters or speakers augment their speech. They do this by using facial expressions, gestures, body language, eye pointing, and vocalizations.


To use an alternative in the communication process means to replace or substitute something for something else. You would replace the text with a symbol, graphic, or photo. An alternative to speech includes using symbols or a visual.

Communication means sending and receiving messages with at least one other person.

Symbol-based communication is helpful when used by individuals who are unable to communicate using speech or text alone. The communication sender (broadcaster of the message) helps the audience (the receivers of the message) by communicating with additional (augmented) or different (alternatives) messaging tools. The message broadcaster is an advocate for the audience. The broadcaster helps the audience receive the message. The advocate for the audience realizes that the audience may not yet have developed, or have difficulty developing, literacy and communication skills necessary to receive the message with a text-only or spoken-only broadcast.

Symbols offer a visual representation of a word or idea.

Brail is an example of replacing (using an alternative) text with another form of the same message.

For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, sign language is an alternative to spoken language.

However, using sign language to communicate goes far beyond the motions and symbols being used via the hands. Other visual information is being transmitted.

Three Examples – Universal Design in Communications

The first example is from communicating using sign language.

In sign language communication there is information in the gaze of the person communicating using sign language. The gaze can serve several functions. People well-versed in sign language (signers) as a communication tool consistently look upward when indicating a hypothetical statement. Beyond just looking up, the position of the signer’s head conveys different meanings. Positioning the head forward while expressing a hypothetical thought can be used to express a self-addressed, hypothetical question (such as “should I go to the movies tonight?”).

However, moving the head forward can also accompany an “if” clause (“If I go to the movies tonight, I might see Wonder Woman”). In other contexts, it can also act as an exclamation or imply possibility.

As you can see, there is significant communication nuance when the broadcaster is using sign language.

Example - Universal Design in Communication - Peace Corps Example

Another example comes from the U.S. Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps wanted to communicate to Zambians who are deaf/hard of hearing. The audience lacked awareness and access to information about HIV/AIDS and adolescent reproductive health. U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers created posters that incorporated English, Sign Language, and iconic symbolic representations.

This combination made the message accessible to deaf communities in Zambia in their first language. The combination also ensured those who had no language competencies could readily understand these posters.

In a final example, the the Vietnam Governance for Inclusive Growth Program use Universal Design concepts in these communication materials.  They applied Universal Design to publish a Handbook (in Vietnamese) to raise awareness of vulnerable groups’ personal and property rights and provide guidance on how to exercise them. They consulted representatives from international and national organizations and persons with disabilities to make valuable suggestions to ensure the handbook remained as user-friendly and inclusive as possible by:

  1. Including visual illustrations to aid with comprehension regardless of language ability.
  2. Producing the handbook in word-format, so it is compatible with software for people who are blind to read it.

Here is a link to a text-to-speech reader. You can copy and paste your text into this tool to see how your text will be spoken by a text-speech reader.


Universal Design is not an overly burdensome process. It goes a long way to ensure that different communities have equal access to critical information. If you do not intentionally include, you may unintentionally exclude. Remember to consider inclusion from the start of the design — your projects and the communities you support will reap the benefits for years to come.