Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Universal Thoughts

PostedWednesday, February 12, 2020 at 8:14 PM

Universal Thoughts

While recovering from a recent cold, I watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie. In it, a mad scientist is forcing Mike and his robot companions to watch one of the “worst movies ever made”.  That movie, This Island Earth, is made laugh-out-loud funny by the running commentary of Mike and his friends.

Along with all the funny lines, one quip has been stuck in my brain for days now. As the beginning credits appear on screen, Mike asks, “Doesn’t the fact that it’s universal make it international?”

It’s stuck with me because I’ve been learning about universal design.

According to the United Nations, universal design is “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”

Universal design dates back to the mid-twentieth century, when tens of thousands of WWII veterans returned from battle with disabling injuries. Funding poured into engineering research on technologies to specifically address problems faced by disabled persons. The resulting “assistive technologies” proved to have wide consumer appeal.  Design decisions made to accommodate the disabled, often made the environment more welcoming to everyone.

Consider the now ubiquitous dropped curb or curb cut.  

Dropped curb

In 1945 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a disabled veteran and lawyer named Jack Fisher convinced the city commission to install curb cuts at a few downtown crosswalks as a pilot project. The following spring, Fisher wrote the mayor saying, “ramps were instrumental in allowing disabled veterans, disabled non-veterans, aged and infirm persons and mothers with baby carriages more freedom of movement...” What started as a way to help one group, turned out to benefit many others.

Universal design goes well beyond sidewalks and accessible buildings. I prefer using my arthritis-friendly can opener to some other gadget, even though, thankfully, I don’t have arthritis yet. When travelling, I look for simple icons to find bathrooms or stairs in new locations – even in other countries.

Universal design does make some things international!

But more to the point: I think it is a very good thing to take time to notice, to think about, and to understand how people with different abilities and life experiences interact with the world.

First, it creates empathy. As human beings, it is difficult to hate or to fear those we empathize with. They are real people with needs and wants just like our own.

Second, it inspires creativity. For designers, adaptations are opportunities for better design. People forced to live in a world designed for someone else develop all kinds of creative ways to adapt.

Finally, it can grant wisdom. As problem-solvers, our ability is limited by our experience. To become better, we must rely on knowledge, history, and the insights of those different from ourselves.

Engineering experiences provide safe, engaging, and rewarding ways to celebrate different viewpoints and experiences!

Extend your thinking about diversity with this blog on how Diversity Improves Engineering Design.

Universal International image taken from Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie
Dropped curb image by Michael3, found on Wikipedia