The rate of disability continually increases, specifically with increasing age among older persons (Crews & Zavotka, 2006:113). Recognition of the ability of environmental factors to enable or disable a person highlights the challenge for designers and advocates in society (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). To tackle these challenges, a design that accommodates people with functional limitations has changed from a narrow approach to meet the specific needs of a few to a more comprehensive design process for everybody (Miralles, Holt, Marin-Garcia & Carnos-Daros, 2010:448). Such a design is called universal design, which can be defined as 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 specialized design” (Preiser & Smith, 2011:40).

This design has roots in both the disability and design communities (Crews & Zavotka, 2006:116). In addition, the universal design has two major, distinctive threads that can be traced to the emergence of the universal design paradigm. The first thread is the legislative measures that included specialized requirements to accommodate people with disabilities, primarily affecting the larger-scale built environment. The second thread is the non-regulated market-driven responses to an aging society, primarily relating to products (Preiser & Smith, 2011:38). In this report, universal design and its impact on employment of people with disabilities will be discussed.



There are certain principles that guide the use of universal design. The first principle is equitable use, which emphasises that a product or service should be useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). For instance, work environment for people with disabilities should have adaptations that are specific to the workstation and at each task (Miralles et al., 2010:448). The second principle is flexibility in use, which states that the design should accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). This can be achieved by providing alternative ways of performing the tasks (Miralles et al., 2010:449).

The third principle, simple and intuitive use implies that the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). For instance, various employers from different companies and organisations can make use of visual guides to help workers understand the tasks to be completed (Miralles et al., 2010:449). The fourth principle, perceptible information implies that the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory skills (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). Companies can apply this principle by using visual counts; colour coding of screws and screwdrivers; and shaped stickers as they make it easy to see where things should go without the need for great literacy or close inspection (Miralles et al., 2010:449)

The principle of tolerance for error means that the design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). These can be achieved by using some element of error-reduction, either by making differences immediately obvious, or by making guides that are easy to follow (Miralles et al., 2010:449). The sixth principle, low physical effort implies that the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of exhaustion (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). Workers need to design work stations in a way that it reduces the physical effort required to carry out the required operations (Miralles et al., 2010:449)..

The last principle, size and space for approach and use requires an appropriate size and space to be provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility (Preiser & Smith, 2011:37). It simply means that employers should consider the general layout of each workstation and the surrounding environment to accommodate employees with disabilities (Miralles et al., 2010:449).



3.1 Positive impact of universal design on employees with disabilities

Employment of workers with disability is seen as a way of including the interests of society in the company goals (Blanck, Adya, Myhill & Samant, 2007:324). In addition, universal design increases understanding and public support for individuals with disabilities to succeed in the workforce, gain independence from welfare programs, and own properties (Preiser & Smith, 2011:45). Furthermore, employment rates have increased among people with severe functional limitations due to the work environment becoming more accessible as a result of the use of universal design (Blanck et al., 2007:325).

3.2 Negative impact of universal design on employees with disabilities

Although universal design increases employment rate, it still has disadvantages. Firstly, many companies, even with the institutional help they may receive, cannot afford to apply the universal design, particularly given the higher absenteeism of workers with disabilities due to health problems, which can leave expensive adapted workplaces without operating (Miralles et al., 2007). Special adaptations can also be a source of resentment among non-disabled colleagues as they may view it as favouritism (Blanck et al., 2011:444). Universal design approach can reduce the quality of life by calling attention to the otherness of a worker with a disability (Blanck et al., 2011:444). Furthermore, companies often pass on the cost of adaptation to workers with disability in the form of lower wages, which undermines the principle of equity (Blanck et al., 2007:325).



Universal design as an approach to make working environments easily accessible to workers with disabilities must be considered and integrated by the South African government as it will assist with reducing the unemployment rate of people with disabilities, and will achieve equity and fairness in society. Although universal design is a positive approach towards the inclusion of people with disabilities, its adoption will require a rethinking of many homogenous features in the workplace, along with a renewal of  the minds of builders, product manufacturers, and consumers at large (Crews & Zavodtka, 2006:116).



Blanck, P., Adya, M., Myhill, W.N. & Samant, D. 2007. Employment of People with Disabilities: Twenty- Five Years Back and Ahead. Law & Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 25(2):323-356.

Crews, D.E. & Zavodtka, S. 2006. Aging, Disability, and Frailty: Implications for Universal Design. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 25(2):113-118.

Miralles, C., Holt, R., Marin-Garcia, J.A. & Canos-Daros, L. 2011. Universal design of workplaces through the use of Poka-Yokes: Case study and implications. Journal of Industrial Engineering and Management, 4(3):436-452.

Preiser, W.F.E. & Smith, K.H. 2011. Universal Design Handbook. 2nd. United States: Mc-Graw Hill Companies.