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Universal Design for the Web

When meeting the needs of people with disabilities is framed in terms of providing accessibility, it usually results in a two-stage development. First, there is a design with a target audience in mind. Then the design has to be modified to provide accessibility for an audience that had been overlooked.  This increases costs and often the end product lacks the unity of a well-designed product.  Universal design has the potential to blend accessibility issues into creating a product that is used by a broad spectrum of people and without adding the expenses of retrofitting.

Universal Design is a relatively new paradigm that has emerged from a general approach to designing inclusive environments, typically called barrier-free design. The idea behind Universal Design is to reduce obstacles to access in order to accommodate the broad spectrum of people's abilities. Wheelchair ramps and curb cuts are one very common real-world example of Universal Design. While originally conceived to accommodate a certain category of disability, they are a great convenience to many—the mail carrier pushing his cart, the mother entering a store with a baby stroller, the small child who cannot negotiate steep steps, the elderly woman using a walker.

Life expectancy in industrialized countries is rising. People are retiring later in life. Modern medicine has increased the survival rate of people with serious illnesses and injuries. Architects and industrial designers have realized that it is simply more economical—and often legally expedient—to design products that accommodate the widest range of abilities and that in many (though certainly not all) cases it makes sense to forego specialized designs that only accommodate particular disabilities. That is, the human environmental changes required to accommodate people with disabilities tend to benefit many people. It makes the most sense to produce a single elegant design that satisfies the majority or the entire range of abilities, rather than create two versions of a product. Given that a manufacturer can leverage economies of scale and produce a more easily marketable product by making it suit the widest range of abilities, it is not difficult to understand the appeal of Universal Design to industry.

Industries have recognized that they could produce more attractive, easily marketable products that support such commonly useful features at a less expensive price. All these factors make the Universal Design more interesting for industries and thus the foundation of Universal Design.

The Center for Universal Design provides seven principles of Universal Design. The principles were drafted by Ronald L. Mace and nine colleagues from the fields of architecture, usability research, and industrial design. The principles are general and can be applied to a wide range of design problems, including human spatial environments, product designs, and communications media. In the following section, we focus on how the principles might be applied to the creation of online education content, looking in particular at ways they may affect students with disabilities.

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