CIRCA:Assistive Technology and Universal Design


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Assistive Technology

Many see assistive technology as tools or systems in place to help people with disabilities cope and navigate the world as others do. But in fact, all technology is assistive. We all use help from our devices whether it is our phones, smart watches, glasses, etc. All technology is created as a tool to help us navigate through the world. Rather than thinking about designing for diagnostic impairments, all technology is designed to assist different groups of the population.

What is defined as technology that is assistive, depends largely on how each culture and society handles those who have significant disabilities. However, everyone will be more or less dependent on their surrounding systems at one point or another in their lives. This may be due to age (e.g. a baby or a centenarian), degeneration (e.g. Alzheimer's), or sudden change (e.g. car accident).


There is a strong focus, particularly in North America, to look at numbers to decide what is normal. This has led at looking at averages as the ideal in both individuals and generalized populations even if it leads to more harm than good.

Looking at what is normal gives the allusion of easing a sense of anxiety even if what it actually does is create a fixation. Within a culture, everyone takes for granted what is deemed as normal and tries to stay ahead of that normal. This is without consideration for any actual correlation between 'normalcy' and wellness, work or healthy relationships.

Advantages to a generalized approach to design

Uncoupling the idea of disability and assistive design has a number of benefits:

  • It opens up who and what we are designing for. There may be other uses for an item beyond the originally intended practical ends.
  • It brings attention to new technologies regardless of whether they are designed for accessibility or mainstream use, or both.

Universal Design

As per the National Disability Authority, universal design is "the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability."

An environment, whether digital or analog, should be accessible to everyone who wishes to use it. That is a fundamental condition of good design. Universal design demands that designers look beyond a narrow group of people when they are going through the design thinking process. This leads to developments like curb cuts, which allows walking individuals, strollers, wheelchairs and more to have use of sidewalks, or websites with high colour contrast, which allows individuals with different levels of sightedness to enjoy it.

7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group in North Carolina State University (NCSU). The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. The Principles "may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments." (Center for Universal Design in NCSU)

  • Principle 1: Equitable Use: Provide same or equitable means for all users.
  • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use: Provide choice in methods of use whenever possible.
  • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use: Be consistent with user expectations and intuition. Accommodate a wide range of literacies.
  • Principle 4: Perceptible Information: Use different presentation modes (visual, verbal, tactile) for redundancy and maximize "legibility" of essential information.
  • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error: Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors and provide fail-safe features.
  • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort: Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use: Provide adequate space for clarity and for any needed assistance.


  • Hendren, Sara. “Chapter 15: All Technology Is Assistive: Six Design Rules on Disability.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, Debates in the Digital Humanities, Series 3, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, doi:10.5749/9781452963778.
  • Jackson-Gibson, Adele. “The Racist and Problematic Origins of the Body Mass Index.” Good Housekeeping, 1 Nov. 2021,
  • National Disability Authority and Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. “What Is Universal Design.” Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2020,
  • Review, Disability Science. “The Curb Cut Effect: How Making Public Spaces Accessible to People With Disabilities Helps Everyone.” Medium, 13 June 2018,
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