Leave no-one behind

Universal design is a strategic approach to ensure that the 2030 agenda for sustainable development is realised. This is what you need to know about universal design.

Persons with disabilities are often excluded from opportunities, services, and family and community life due to the design of an environment, services and equipment. This exclusion is not unique as children, older persons, pregnant women, and religious or cultural minority groups often experience the same limitations in participating as equal citizens.

Universal access is a generally accepted principle in both the international and national arena. Through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, through the Sustainable Development Goal commitments, governments agree to ‘LEAVE NO-ONE BEHIND’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights commit governments, which have ratified these treaties, to protect the rights of all persons, regardless of difference.

This includes the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The South African Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, among others. The provision of universally accessible services therefore results in the independent living, participation in society and an increased choice and options for quality of life.

Universal Design, also referred to as lifespan design, is the most important tool to achieve universal access. It ensures that all residents, irrespective of age, size, ability, etc., benefit from accessible places and products. The fundamental premise of Universal Design is the recognition of human diversity as opposed to the concept of the ‘average man’.

The benefits of widely implementing universal design and applying the seven principles are an important way of meeting the needs of as many people as possible. The principles are:

  • Equitable use – Useful and marketable design for persons with diverse access needs.
  • Flexibility in use – Accommodating design for various preferences and access needs.
  • Simple and intuitive use – Design that is easy to understand regardless of experience, knowledge, language, skills or concentration level.
  • Perceptible information – Design that effectively communicates necessary information, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory access needs.
  • Tolerance for error – Design that minimises hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort – Efficient and comfortable design, which doesn’t cause fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use – Design that provides appropriate size and space regardless of body size, posture or mobility.

Universal design significantly reduces the need to provide accessible accommodation, as everyone is catered for as part of the expected and normal provision of services. The White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (WPRPD) commits duty bearers to realising the rights of persons with disabilities by, among others, ensuring universal design informs access and participation in the planning, budgeting and service delivery of all programmes.

The policy defines universal design as: “The design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all persons to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Assistive devices and technologies for particular groups of persons with disabilities, where these are needed, must also respond to the principles of universal design. Universal design is therefore the most important tool to achieve universal access.”

The Department of Social Development, in its capacity as the National Disability Rights Coordinating Mechanism in government and as custodian of the WPRPD, will be releasing two National Frameworks on Universal Design and Access as well as on Reasonable Accommodation in November 2017 to provide further guidance for implementation of the WPRPD.

Progress reports on the implementation of the WPRPD are submitted to Cabinet on an annual basis. A participatory rapid impact assessment on how implementation of the WPRPD has changed the lives of persons with disabilities and their families will be conducted towards 2020.


Zain Bulbulia led the South African government delegation team to the United Nations (UN), New York, for the ratification and signing of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability. He is currently the acting head for gender, youth and disability in the planning commission of the Premier of Gauteng. email: zain.bulbulia@gauteng.gov.za

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