Accessibility 101

Our expert columnists, PHILLIP THOMPSON and COLETTE FRANSOLET, give us a terminology refresher.

We at Universal Design Africa (UDAfrica) are delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the Rolling Inspiration accessibility column. As this is the first in a series, we believe it’s useful to look at the terminology that is currently used in the area of accessibility.

Universal Access (UA) is the ability of people to have equal opportunity and access to services, products, systems and environments, regardless of their economic situation, social situation, age, religion or cultural background, gender or functional limitation. Accessibility can be viewed as “the ability to access” and the ability to functionally benefit from the system, environment, product, service or entity.

The primary instrument to achieve Universal Access (UA) is Universal Design (UD). UD acknowledges that the population consists of people of varying ages, heights, weights, language skills, abilities etc. Think of it like this: UD is the method of achieving UA, which is defined as the objective – the outcome – which is that everyone has equal opportunity and access.

UA is achieved through integrating the philosophy of UD into the creative process. It demonstrates how an understanding of human interaction with place, product, service or system can inspire design. Given the dynamic nature of human functionality, this primarily focuses on the interaction of the individual with the environment. Designing according to the Universal Design Principles or the more recent Goals becomes imperative.

The concept of UD was developed in North America and Europe and became a globally recognised concept when the United Nations adopted the definition of UD in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which South Africa is a signatory. It states that:

“‘Universal design’ means 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 specialised design. ‘Universal design’ shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.”

Finally, accessibility should not be equated with usability, which describes the extent to which a product, environment, service or system can be used by particular users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context. Accessibility focuses on minimising barriers to access and on promoting accessible design features; while usability focuses on task analysis.

In the next issue, we look at the principles and goals of UD, with examples of where it’s been successfully applied. We’ll also illustrate the value of UA to everyone, regardless of their functional ability.


Universal Design Africa (UDAfrica) sees universal design as a vehicle to create and enhance the functionality of environments, services and products for the widest range of users, recognising the diversity of the human condition. The UDAfrica team aims to create awareness, disseminate information and improve lives.

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