Incorporating Inclusive/Universal Design: What it means and how it can affect your life


If you are not familiar with “Universal” or “Inclusive” design, or you have a disability, or care about someone with a disability, or you are in the business of owning or designing public spaces, you are wise to become so.

“Universal design is a process which develops products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) which can be used by, and are useful to, the widest possible range of people.”

We all need to understand and shine a light on what is actually taking place in our communities as more and more designers of furnishing and spaces are under the impression that meeting the bare minimum accessibility standards and codes is all they need to aspire to. That, for example, “5% of total restaurant seating must be accessible to patrons with disabilities” means, that they should ONLY make 5% of seating accessible and it doesn’t really matter where that seating is located, as long as you find somewhere to squeeze it in the plans.

Perhaps it is just ignorance or a lack of understanding and experience. Or is this thought process representative of that part of society which thinks of people with disabilities as invisible, undesirable or unequal?  Is it the good old “we never see people with wheelchairs come in here, so why should we have to spend money on a ramp?” argument, made by so many in fighting to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). It’s amazing how many people rolled out of the woodwork when communities became more accessible, huh? Suddenly, they are everywhere! If you travel to countries where there are no accessibility laws, you will be hard pressed to see anyone in a wheelchair in public. When I was in downtown Seoul, I did not see another during the entire trip, but made a point of eating at the restaurants that took it upon themselves to build a ramp. I had sushi and French cuisine in Seoul!

It may also surprise you to learn that it has become the popular design trend today to build restaurant/bar seating and spaces in a manner that is exclusionary, and then to add in the accessible features as a “stand alone.” This has unfortunately become the norm and now it behooves those of us with disabilities to take notice and begin advocating for the education and implementation of Universal design wherever possible. We need to make “design for ALL” the newest and most advanced trend.  We need to make it cool like it’s cool to be “green.” Can it become cool to create “inclusive environments” before it is too late? In many ways, it already is—we have already become segregated and many didn’t realize it was happening right under our noses.

How it feels to be “Different”

Those of us who roll instead of walk (and other limitations) are already well aware that we are different from most of our peers in society.  But now we can thank our local restaurants and pubs for making this abundantly clear and ensuring we feel “differently abled,” just in case—for a moment—we were actually having a good time and thought we might just be fitting in.

To illustrate, on a recent outing with a group of girlfriends in Fort Lauderdale, FL, we chose a trendy, upscale market bar/restaurant to begin our evening with dinner.  Upon arrival at the location, we were greeted with steps at every entrance.  When we asked one of the patrons, we were told the accessible entrance was at the other end of complex, so I was required to go far out of our way, with one friend who chose to come with me, while the others went inside to sign in for our 8pm reservation. (Abercrombie was successfully litigated against for the same practice of having a completely separate entrance for wheelchairs

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Abercrombie, a clothing retailer, was sued for it’s design of steps and porch at entrance

The bar area was high, which is to be expected, bars are always high with stools, but all the tables in the bar area were the new High Top style too.  Okay, we dealt with this and proceeded to get drinks and wait while we checked out the scene. Our reservation indicated that one of us was a wheelchair user but, to our surprise, we were told that all of the dining booths on the entire first floor were booths on raised platforms.

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Grill 401 Booth design excludes all wheelchair patrons from main first floor dining room


Essentially, the restaurant designer had made all of the main areas where people want to “see and be seen,” and the entire first floor, inaccessible to those who are disabled and use wheelchairs or, for that matter, anyone who is unable to climb a stool or booth. I was forced to go alone again (separate from my group of friends) to the back of restaurant with a hostess and into a small lift (not a proper elevator) which then took me to the second floor where standard height tables where available.  Once there, far away from the hubbub and main scene on the first floor, we proceeded to have our dinner while trying once again to forget the disruption to the flow of the night, due to this awkwardness.

After dinner, all of the girls took turns in the restroom. When it was my turn, even though the room was large enough, the toilet was far too low. ADA code is a minimum of 17 inches from the floor and this was more like 14, making it impossible for me to transfer safely.  I politely asked our server if I could see the manager, who informed me that there was a separate “stand alone” handicapped restroom located on the first floor.  Down the tube lift I go again…

By this time, I am feeling strange. Yes, the effect of this design assault was beginning to affect my self-esteem and I felt a strange sense of not belonging.  I was made to feel increasingly more aware of my disability than I otherwise do in my usual environment (thanks to the ADA and Florida being one of the most accessible states in the world) simply because the restaurant decided it was acceptable to meet the minimum standards laid down by the law and the codes of the ADA, but not to embrace diversity and make it inclusive for all.

Separate but equal.

I felt (and actually was) segregated because of my disability at this restaurant. “This is your entrance, your separate bathroom, your way to reach the second floor, and your separate dining area.  The rest is OFF LIMITS to your kind.”  I felt like anyone would in these circumstances: less-than, singled out, isolated and hurt. It made me feel saddened that, after 25 years of the ADA, we have entered the era of re-segregation. Just for a moment, imagine this was being done based on race, sex, religion or age. We eliminated all that with the 1965 Civil Rights Act, but the civil rights of the disabled are being tested and pushed to the limits by these standards and no one is saying, “This is not okay!”

How would you feel?

It was the same story at each new location we moved on to.  There were only High Top tables at all the bars and outdoor cafes. No matter where we went, I couldn’t sit and talk at eye-level with my friends. When did it become okay to implement seating options that simply ignore and exclude anyone who cannot stand up?

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My chin reached the The Public House high top tables adjacent to bar area.

These experiences and this first post about it have lead PUSHLiving to begin the #DroptheHighTops campaign. This is an actionable campaign where you can help by: adding your signature to the cause page, sharing the campaign page with others, and adding your stories and photos of being “excluded by design” to the Wall of Shame.

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How hard would it be for the Grill 401, and others in the business of creating and providing social spaces, to simply make all the tables accessible? Booths in general are not wheelchair friendly, so why use them or modify them to keep the features you like, but not make them exclusionary? Perhaps because of money?

Booth Seating…

“A dining booth actually provides one of the most cost-efficient and space-efficient layouts for a dining room. For example, a 4-person booth covers little more than 3,000 square inches of floor space, whereas a 4 person table and chair set can exceed 5,000 square inches. This equates to 30% more revenue when seating a packed house. Booth seating is a really great way to help save floor space AND help save your bottom line!”

This is why it is important to celebrate and apply positive feedback and focus to the use of Inclusive or Universal design however and whenever possible.

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This booth design would be difficult to get a wheelchair comfortably accommodated due to protruding base and requires seating in aisle

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This Booth design allows for a wheelchair to be naturally positioned and included and is a beautiful example of Inclusive Design.


For example, every year, the American Institute for Interior Design awards the ASID Design Excellence Award in Universal Design. Let’s applaud those who recognize the value of Universal Design and take the initiative to make this part of the architecture and design process.

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This Bar space is fully accessible and a design winner for 2014!

Hospitality Space Design Winners for 2014

If you can Dream it, you can achieve it

Imagine a perfect world where All Inclusive/Universal design is the norm and any deviation from this principle is considered selfish, thoughtless and discriminatory—which, of course, it is.

Imagine that all bathroom stalls were wide enough for a wheelchair or walker and that all entrances were sloping.

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Imagine if all the stall were the same size, instead of 1 at the end of the long row.

Imagine that all architects, just like at Disney World, didn’t use stairs at all or build entrances at the top of stairs in new constructions and then make sure the accessibility guidelines are met, as an afterthought, with a separate entrance.

Study after study has proven that all people, including able bodies, mothers, elderly and disabled prefer the universal design features. We all know the handicapped bathroom is the most used and that instead of having four toilets, you could have three—all with a width of 36 inches, and a larger one for those who need side or full radius turn around.

What if architects received more encouragement from their customers and drew plans that were All Access from the outset, rather than retrofitting later, or adding in a separate section of tables or ramps to accommodate. What if all reception areas or tellers were the same height verses having a lower area cut out?

What if all new outdoor spaces had gently sloping walk ways instead of steps?

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Gently sloping walkways, instead of steps are examples of how beautiful Universal Design can be. Image by Joshua Glover for

How do we now reverse this trend of complying but not including? Where is it really acceptable to build environments where only 5% of the total space is properly accessible? This might make sense when it comes to a retrofit of an existing inaccessible space, but not to design a new chain of restaurants and consider it perfectly acceptable, without having given a thought to how it makes people with disabilities feel when 95% of the space is unusable for them.

Please tell us your thoughts and join our campaign to #DroptheHighTops and advocate Universal design.  Share your stories and tell us who has got it right.  We will add the good examples to our Pinterest page.  If you are a design expert and want to learn more, please contact us or see our resources below.

Follow Push Living, Inc’s board Inclusive or Universal Design for People with Disabilities on Pinterest.


Accessible Gardening:

Accessible Homes:

Did you know people tried passing inclusive design legislation in 2013 and it didn’t pass?

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Deborah Davis

Deborah is a Speaker, Disability Inclusion Consultant, Entrepreneur, Writer and Business Owner of Wheelchair Lifestyle Enterprise Push Living Inc.

She was a Former Dancer, Accident Survivor (C 6-7 Spinal Cord Injury resulting in incomplete Quadriplegia 1985), College grad (BBA Finance 1991 U of Miami), with a background in Sales and Marketing and Non Profit Development and Management.

She is now embarked on new path creating a market for Disability Inclusive Stock Images with the creation of and publishing an online enterprise: The mission is to create Inclusion for people with disabilities through stock images for advertising, marketing and editorial uses, providing accessible properties for travel, swap or purchase, publishing an online magazine for improved health and well-being, providing information and opportunities for Accessible Travel, and operating an online store with products that improve lives.

She is most passionate about building a network of people with disabilities who are empowering, supporting and creating a more inclusive world. Personally, she is a mother of two beautiful, wise and exceptionally bright young women, and residing in South Florida.

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