Their user-needs, our user-needs. Universal Design Patterns

Fionnuala Rogerson, Hubert Froyen


Human experience of ability – dis-ability is manifest in and through interface with human-made physical objects and environments. Universalising disablement policy begins by demystifying the ‘specialness’ of dis-ability, by seeing it as an infinitely various, fluid, and continuous universal feature of the human condition.

 Since functional dis-ability is seen here as an intrinsic and universal feature of the human bio-psycho-social condition, a contemporary material world should offer sustainable solutions for diversity and heterogeneity throughout human lifecycles.

 Focus in this workshop will be on the ‘real-world needs’ of people with permanent or long-term functional limitations. User-experts are seen as ‘miner’s canaries’ who can lead the way in the shaping of a more sustainable physical environment for all, in all stages of the human lifecycle.

 By first identifying (their) special needs that require special attention, we subsequently proceed to generalising these needs – that vary in roughly predictable ways – over the course of (our) lifespan.

 People should have the necessary ‘freedom to build’ (Habraken, 1965, Turner, 1972) and to adapt their environment to their changing needs, but decision makers and design professionals play an ever growing role in the shaping of physical environments.

Empathy (Mental Picture) on their part is of paramount importance, but not sufficient for the evidence-based approach that is needed.

 Empirical research (Actual World) has to fill the knowledge gap, and both knowledge and design creativity should be incorporated in an overall methodological UD-approach.


Part 1 Empathy (Mental Picture)
Workshop participants intuitively list three functional misfits in a public toilet, that might hinder :

  1. Person with mobility impairment (not wheelchair user)
  2. Person with one hand
  3. Person with colostomy

Part 2 Actual World
User-experts themselves briefly explain what facilities they need to use a public toilet, as a person with mobility impairment (not wheelchair user), a person with one hand, and as a person with colostomy.

 Part 3
Concluding session.

  • Generalising (their) needs, in ‘disabling situations’ which everyone of us might be confronted with over the course of (our) life span
  • Systematic structuring of ‘current functional misfits’ & related ‘current design solutions’ in Universal Design Patterns (Alexander, 1977). 


Habraken, N.J. (1972). Supports, An alternative to mass housing. London : The Architectural Press. ISBN 0 85139 225 3. The initial English language edition, translated from Dutch by B. Valkenburg

Turner, J. (1972). Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process. New York: Macmillan.

Alexander, C.  (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge, MA. : Harvard University Press. (Ninth Printing 1977) 

Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., et al. (1977).  A Pattern Language
New York: Oxford University Press