The first time the term universal design appeared in print was in 1985 when the disabled architect Ronald Mace wrote an article entitled, “Universal design: Barrier-free environments for everyone” (Mace, 1985). In the article, Mace argued that design should keep all users in mind, not just the average and not just users labelled as exceptional. Mace advocated that two core concepts would improve experiences for all users.
Designs should have multiple-use and objects should be flexible enough to be used in different ways.
Designs should have access built into them, rather than requiring retrofitting (Mace, 1985).
Designers have been thinking about users, average and non-average, in various ways. In the 1960s, two competing design philosophies emerged: user-centred design and barrier-free design. Both perspectives advocate for equity among excluded and marginalised users. Initially, user-centred design focussed on addressing common accessibility issues within industrial design settings. Within the field of architecture, disability tended to be marginalisation and associated with meeting statutory building regulations (Roberts et al., 2011). Barrier-free design advocates for experiences to be considered and integrated within the design. From this perspective, architecture and experience happen together and must be considered carefully to be meaningful to all users (Cooper et al., 1991). The American National Standard Institute published the first standard for accessible design in 1961. Over the next three decades, these standards were brought into law through American state and federal legislation. In response to the legislation, a team of experts from North Carolina State University released the guide “Principles of Universal Design” (Reliance Foundry, 2021). Universal design advocates for buildings and products to be accessible by design, for as many people as possible. Universal design is not always a stable concept, and it is frequently evolving. Within our recent history, there has been a great deal of experimentation in the field of universal design. This eventually led to the educational framework of Universal Design for Learning. The origin of Universal Design for Learning is attributed to David Rose and advisors at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). The framework was developed in direct response to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) published in 1990. The IDEA Act mandated that all students with a disability were provided with appropriate public education to meet their individual needs (Katsiyannis et al., 2001). At a time when an increasing emphasis was placed on physical access to educational environments, Rose and Meyer observed the separation between a one-size-fits-all curriculum and an increasingly diverse student population (Rose & Meyer, 2006). CAST applied the concept of universal design with emerging evidence from cognitive neuroscience in learning development to create the foundation of Universal Design for Learning. Drawing on research from more than 1,000 studies of effective practices in education, the first edition of the Universal Design for Learning guidelines was published in 2008.