Universal Design: Empowering Disability

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14 March 2018

When I was 16, a motorcycle accident damaged my spinal cord and put me in a wheelchair.

Unknowingly I was thrust into the world of wayfinding – I suddenly became reliant on detours as steps, steep gradients, heavy doors and accessible toilets became hurdles to everyday life.

When I was 16, a motorcycle accident damaged my spinal cord and put me in a wheelchair.

Unknowingly I was thrust into the world of wayfinding – I suddenly became reliant on detours as steps, steep gradients, heavy doors and accessible toilets became hurdles to everyday life. But signage systems provided me with essential security, predictability and confidence in my movement.

I am one of 18 per cent of the population who have a disability – and that doesn’t include people who visit a site, event or building for the very first time, let alone the ever-aging population, parents with small children and strollers, service and emergency service personnel and visitors who don’t speak English. Wayfinding has become more than just signage on a wall. It creates an ambience, positive perceptions and an orientation medium through which people can ‘experience’ a building, place or event.

A new Australian Standard for wayfinding (DR AS 1428.4.2) is on its way with a view to being incorporated into the National Construction Code in the near future. A positive element of this is that it gives designers a broad scope of consideration, rather than just static signage. Unfortunately the Standard is – somewhat justifiably – silent on the use of technology as a key feature of wayfinding. But technology is ultimately the future of functional wayfinding and user experience – think dynamic signage linked to SMS and smart phone technology, which operate in real time as conditions and environments change.

For someone who uses a wheelchair or guide dog or has MS, “smart wayfinding” is the difference between fighting through crowds to try and catch a full capacity train only to be pushed out of the way (true story), versus relaxing close to an area with accessibility amenities or facilities such as a nearby café, and waiting for the SMS update that links with the dynamic scrolling signage of the station. This means waiting for 10 minutes to meander your way to the platform and hop on the highlighted carriage without fear.

Of course, technology will not solve every problem. The concept of Universal Design must also be considered to ensure seamless access for everyone. Some principles to consider include:

  • The ability to see a street view on your iPhone or tablet, so a pathway can be walked before leaving home
  • Transport linkages with undercover waiting areas with a clear line of sight from a building entrance
  • Pathways with lateral colour and a contrasting border, where bike racks (angled at 45 degrees), rest seating, garbage bins and drinking fountains are clustered and offset from a pathway
  • Signage, including pictograms, that is mounted at a height that ensures its visibility over crowds.
  • Locations of amenities that are at key transition points, easily identified by static signage
  • Location/building identity signage that lets you know where you are
  • Clear building lines for people who use walking canes or have guide dogs
  • Cafés and seating areas that allow predictable movement and are defined by texturally contrasting paving and café barriers
  • Beacons that transmit information to programs such as Blindsquare, which deliver metre-by-metre accuracy of a pathway and cover business type, street intersections and event spaces

I have been lucky enough to consult on some of the biggest sporting events in the world, like the Olympics and Paralympics. Mega events like these transform a parkland from a few scattered families in barbecue areas to giant hives of activity where 300,000 people come and go from multiple venues over multiple times during a single day. To make them work, it’s necessary to have spectator guides in plain English with signage that features internationally recognisable pictograms. These must be linked to real time messaging on smart phones and consistent with directions from spectator services staff. No single method of wayfinding will provide a solution; it is a combination of many.

Although I specialise in accessibility, considerations such as safety in design, Universal Design, diversity, ageing in place, disability access and now cycling are becoming more prevalent as time progresses.

Forget that I use a wheelchair, as I age my tolerance to heat, distance, crowds challenging environments has diminished.  I suspect that I am not alone, with many of my able bodied mates, now either over weight, have dodgy knees or ankles (David recently got his fused) or simply need a set of glasses to read a menu.

All seem to highlight the fact that whether you are an infant, a 20-year old skier with a knee injury, a new mum or a 50-year old with early onset arthritis, accessible wayfinding is a key consideration to ensuring people can fully enjoy life – no matter their age or ability.


Nick Morris

Director, Morris Goding Access Consulting

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