Conducting a Spatial Analysis through the Lens of Universal Design

Sign on door: Wheelchair accessible entrance available. Please see inside for assistance

The sign in this image reads, “WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE ENTRANCE AVAILABLE, PLEASE ASK INSIDE FOR ASSISTANCE.” Obviously, this picture was taken and turned into a meme because someone thought it was funny, which it is. But is it just funny, or does it reveal a deeper message about the way our society thinks about people with disabilities? What does this meme actually tell us? It tells us this building has been retrofitted with an alternative wheelchair accessible entrance, and its proprietors went so far as to post a sign with this information. However, the proprietors neglected to consider whether someone in a wheelchair could actually enter the main doors to “ask for assistance.” Perhaps the proprietors assumed that anyone in a wheelchair would have an able-bodied companion who could enter and inquire on their behalf—an assumption that undermines the independence of people with disabilities.

Often, the form that physical structures take reveals the values of their architects and inhabitants. In the words of disability scholar Jay Dolmage, “Attention to disability shows that physical structures equate with ideological structures” (15). Observing and analyzing the ways that ability and design affect access is not only an interesting way to conduct an analysis of spaces, but is also an important activity from a social justice perspective.  Below, we discuss how to conduct an analysis of spaces through the lens of Universal Design.  Universal Design is an approach to design that resists ableism (a way of thinking that equates “able-bodiedness” with “normalcy,” thus, marginalizing people with disabilities), which is implicit in the meme above.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design, or UD, is a framework for the creation of user-friendly spaces and objects, including public facilities, work places, homes, consumer products, and communications.  As it says on the website of the Center for Universal Design, “The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

Funded by the US Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, a group of working designers and universal design advocates developed seven Principles of Universal Design to guide the ideation, development, and implementation of usable space and product designs for all people regardless of ability.

The seven UD principles are:

  • Equitable Use | the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in Use | the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use | use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible Information | the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for Error | the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low Physical Effort | the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use | appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

(Copyright © 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design)

Universal Design as a Way of Analyzing Place and Space

Although the concept of UD is commonly used by architects and designers as a way of determining a space’s level of accessibility, we are suggesting that UD is an applicable, conceptual framework for conducting spatial analyses in a first-year composition class.  As an example of this, we will use the principles of UD to conduct a visual-spatial analysis of the entryway to a busy food court (Fig. 1). While this analysis could be conducted at the physical site, we will focus our attention on a photograph for the purposes of this web-text. Take a moment to carefully look at this photograph. How do the principles of UD apply—or not—to this space? Is this entryway accessible? Why or why not?


Fig. 1 Food court

As you might have determined, the design of this entryway does not adhere to all of the principles of UD. While the design appears simple and intuitive, it does not seem equitable or flexible. The blue button that automatically opens the doors is positioned on the doors’ far right-hand side. This could be difficult to access—or even dangerous during busy hours. For example, a person in a wheelchair would have to maneuver around the crowded doorway to the far right-hand side and then back through the crowd to access the doorway. As this seems to be the only point of access, the design should not be considered flexible or equitable for persons with disabilities. Moreover, the placement of the railings on either side of the entrance does not lend itself to low physical effort, as the railings are too far away from the doors to be used as a hand support. What else do you notice? What might the architects have done differently to make this entryway more accessible?

In comparison to Fig. 1, take a look at Fig. 2, a photo of a library entrance. Does this entrance adhere more closely to the principles of UD? Why or why not?

Conducting a Spatial Analysis through the Lens of Universal Design

Fig. 2 Library entrance

The first thing you probably notice about this entrance is that the blue access button is located at the end of a series of entrances and close to a doorway. Therefore, all library patrons have different access options. Also, the handrails at the last entrance are better positioned to provide support for all people, including people who may not identify as having a disability (e.g. students carrying books, people with strollers, etc.)

Because there are multiple points of entry into the library, the design here is more than equitable, it is also flexible, giving people the option to choose how they access the building. In this way, UD is not just about providing accommodation for people with disabilities. Rather, it is a way of thinking about the design of public spaces in order to make access to public space available to all people regardless of preference or ability.

What else do you notice when you apply the other UD principles to this entrance?

Beyond the Classroom

Think about your own campus or community.

  • Are there buildings and spaces on your campus or in your community that effectively fulfill the UD principles?
  • Are there spaces that don’t?
  • What might an analysis of these spaces reveal to you about the way our society thinks about dis/ability and accessibility?


At some point during this process of analyzing a space through the lens of UD, you might ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why is it important to analyze spaces through a UD lens?” In addition to being a unique way to analyze a text, engaging in an analysis informed by UD is actually a great way to develop awareness—both for yourself and your audience—of issues surrounding disability and access in our everyday environments. Whether or not you identify as a person with disabilities, engaging in this analysis can have a number of far-reaching implications. As disability scholar, Rebecca Day Babcock, writes, “An important move in disability studies is to critically examine the construction of ‘normal’—its history, power, and rules—so as to understand how the norm operates to maintain an invisible hierarchal structuring effect” (39). By challenging these norms in a spatial-analysis assignment, we are engaging in the larger critique of ableism and inequality in society.

Works Cited

Babcock, Rebecca Day. “Tutoring Deaf College Students in the Writing Center.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. 28-39. Print.

Center for University Design. “Guidelines for Use of the Principles of Universal Design.” Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State U, 2002. PDF.

—. “The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0” Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State U, 1997. Web. 27 October 2014.

Disability memes. “Wheelchair Accessible Entrance Available.” Disability Memes Facebook Page. Facebook, 30 April 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. 13-27. Print.

“The principles of Universal Design were conceived and developed by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. Use of application of the Principles in any form by an individual or organization is separate and distinct from the Principles and does not constitute or imply acceptance or endorsement by The Center for Universal Design of the use of application” (see “Guidelines”)