Presentation Summaries

Dan Formosa presents at the AccessEngineering capacity building institute.

Introduction to Universal Design

By Sheryl Burgstahler and Kat Steele, University of Washington

Educators come to universal design and accessibility from different perspectives—some people see their departments as inclusive, while others don’t; some people have more students with disabilities in their classes than others; and some people know more about universal design, and include it in their classroom curriculum, compared to others.

Ability is on a continuum, with individuals more or less able to see, walk, read, or do other tasks. When engineers are designing a product or environment, a better product can be created not necessarily by focusing explicitly on disability, but rather by considering what is usable by individuals with the widest range of abilities. There are two approaches to access: universal design and accommodations. Accommodations can include creating accessible documents, captioning videos, more time on tests, or a variety of other options. Universal design makes a class accessible, inclusive, and usable to the greatest population possible, including those with disabilities—specifically, “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). Both of these approaches are important.

Universal design was first applied to physical spaces, having a start in architecture. It has since been applied to technology, learning activities, and services. Examples of universal design include curb cuts, automatic doors, and built-in accessibility features such as those on the iPhone. Universal design principles include

  • equitable use,
  • flexibility in use,
  • simple and intuitive,
  • perceptible information,
  • tolerance for error,
  • low physical effort, and
  • size and space for approach and use.

Universal design can also be applied to classroom instruction, such as a welcoming class climate; effective communication; the physical environment, products, and IT; delivery methods; and feedback and assessment.

What if all engineers were trained in the basics of universal design and accessibility? There could be

  • more inclusive products and environments,
  • more innovative solutions,
  • less need for custom accommodations, and
  • a shift in burden from individual to society.

What should all engineers be taught about universal design? While there are a variety of answers to this question, the basic value of a universal design approach in any design process is the consideration of a broad range of users.

Unpacking What We Know About Disability and Accessibility

By Heather Feldner, Ability & Innovation Lab, and Kayla Brown, AccessEngineering

When you hear the term disability, what comes to mind? It might invoke ideas about inspiration, charity-cases, problems, challenges, fighting, limited access, physical, fixing, “nothing about us without us,” or accessibility. Why is it important to acknowledge this? When we are thinking about and discussing disability, we often don’t consider our biases and the long history of oppression of people with disabilities. This is part of being a good ally to people with disabilities, and part of making sure what we do in the context of our work is meaningful.

The traditional paradigm to think about disability is the medical model, which sees disability as a problem that needs to be fixed. Barriers in society focus on the individual’s issues instead of the institutional problem. In reaction, the social model focuses on attitudinal and environmental barriers that impede people with disabilities rather than focusing on disability as the problem. The social model recognizes that disability and impairment are two separate things. Disability is a social construct created by barriers within institutions, attitudes, and inequality. The complex embodiment model, meanwhile, focuses on bodily experiences of impairment as well as the social and physical barriers, viewing both of these as equally important in defining a person’s disability experience.

One framework for thinking about disability and design is Design for User Empowerment, which recognizes disability as a form of diversity and promotes empowerment rather than accommodation (Ladner, R. E. (2015). Design for user empowerment. interactions, 22(2), 24-29.). Universal design, meanwhile, acknowledges and critiques discriminatory processes of design about the able-bodied ideal and informs new and different design processes by and for disabled people as equally valued bodies (Hamraie, A. (2012). Universal design research as a new materialist practice. Disability Studies Quarterly, 32(4).). Both Richard Ladner and Aimie Hamraie suggest that both the material products of design, and the tangible and intangible processes that give way to these products, matter, and contribute to how society acknowledges and makes sense of disability. In other words, design is a social signifier.

The biases and stereotypes we have today have been influenced by events and attitudes from the past. Historically, eugenics and institutionalization, ideas often promoted by scientists, promoted the idea that some lives were less worth living than others. Eugenics made a case for valuing some lives over others by arguing for things like allowing infants with disabilities to die. Institutions rather than being safe havens for people with disabilities were often places of neglect, abuse, and filth. This has led to bias against and increased pitying of people with disabilities. Feeling that their rights were not regarded seriously, members of the disability community have undertaken acts of civil disobedience in recent decades. Actions such as boycotts, the blocking of traffic, and protest marches, have aimed to force change and raise public awareness. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) grew out of this activism. A highlight of disability rights activism was the Capitol Crawl, which promoted passage of the ADA (see

Despite some of the historical and current contexts of social perceptions of disability, there are some pretty neat design and technology advances for people, that were happening in small pockets before any type of ADA regulation. The oldest existing prosthesis, found in Egypt on the mummy of a priest’s daughter dated from 970 BC. The artistry and detail of the toe have been attributed not only to function, but also to pride and identity, much like an avant garde prosthesis today. Historically we can look at innovations like ear trumpets for amplifying sound and the development of braille.

Today, universal design has entered the mainstream with innovations like Oxo kitchen tools. User led and centered design includes people with disabilities in the creation of new technology. Examples include the UW’s Ability & Innovation Lab’s work to include a user in the creation of a custom, 3D printed, elbow driven orthosis that allows her to grip, lift, carry, and manipulate objects with her or the Taskar Center’s Access Map that works to enable safe, accessible trip planning on pedestrian ways for people with limited mobility.

What does being an ally look like in engineering and design? Uplifting the voices and experiences of people with disabilities throughout every aspect of the design process. Challenging the notion that disability is a deficit to be fixed or a problem to be solved; rather, envisioning technology and design as a personal choice and as a tool to navigate social and physical barriers. Shifting your thinking to see disability as a positive thing and just another form of the human experience.  How do we simultaneously explore technologies and user-centered design for disabled people while affirming disability as diversity and promoting positive disability identity? What commitments can we make as a group going forward in our research with partners who have disabilities?

Designing for People: Nine Random Topics

By Dan Formosa, Dan Formosa, Inc

  1. Things I can’t explain
  2. A quick history of design
  3. Why is everyone always coming up with answers?
  4. Why are we so bad at math?
  5. Why are we designing for average people?
  6. Six real people
  7. Why are we making thing simple?
  8. Why are we fantasizing about women?
  9. Think about people, not things

For my talk at AccessEngineering I covered a selection of design-related topics – in no particular order. Here is a quick summary:

Things I can’t explain

Virtually everything we see and touch in our daily lives is the result of a design decision made by someone somewhere. Keeping this in mind, be on the lookout, our world is filled with unexplainable decisions.

A quick history of design

If you open Google Images and search “industrial design,” you won’t see images of people. Design has traditionally been about things, and it’s focus on things persists. However, this is the wrong approach if you want to design something well.

In the 1960’s, we were suddenly able to advertise products on television. With a desire to sell, there was a new emphasis on aesthetics and visuals. Designers were asked to make products look “new and improved” – whether they were or not. Designers became stylists, making products look better than they actually were in reality.

In the 1980’s and 90’s some designers decided to re-think their role, and focus on people. The thought was that design could be used to improve quality of life, rather than simply focusing on aesthetics.

A design process emerged, typically divided into five phases: research, concepts, development, refinement, and finalization. There are variations on this process —but they basically follow this sequence.

Today design is changing. In the last few years, there has been a focus on innovation, with an emphasis on knowledge and how design affects behavior. However, many design groups are stagnating, failing to move beyond the design process. Designers often base their fees on an hourly rate, which sets a mindset on where they place their value – emphasizing what they do as opposed to what they know.

The “hourly” model can result in designers not spending their time productively – some may simply fill out their allocated hours. In comparison, a start-up will be achievement-based, and can move forward more quickly.

The field of design currently has an opportunity to shift from the “process of designing” to “knowledge about design.” One solution is to move from an agency model (where the people in the agency who are most available will be assigned to a project), to a collective model (where team members are assembled from a wide network, placing the most appropriate people on the project).

Why is everyone always coming up with answers?

Teaching a class on branding, I assigned my students a two-part project: 1) envision a brand opportunity and 2) identify the questions you would need to answer to make it happen. All students worked hard on the first part. However, no one did the second part, as if they didn’t hear that part of the assignment. The problem repeated itself with the following year’s class. This turned into a revelation – it clearly demonstrated that we have been trained to “show how smart we are” by giving answers. We rarely ask questions, students or professionals. Yet great questions can lead to great, innovative design solutions.

Why are we so bad at math?

I spend a lot of time with data visualizations, statistics, mechanics and quantitative methods in design research. To create products that are easy to use you need to understand the physics behind products. For instance, if you don’t know the basic principles of a lever, how can you design a tool that provides leverage or some sort of mechanical advantage? Similarly, if you don’t understand basic biomechanics of how a hand works, how can you design something to be used by the hand? This understanding is not complex, it involves basic anatomy and some 5th-grade math. Yet think back to your grade-school math class - why would we be interested in math if it isn’t made interesting?

Why are we designing for average people?

While there is often a tendency to average things – the height of the average person, for example – the average can be useless. We need to understand extremes, such as the tallest and the shortest, to design for the widest range of people possible. If we just design for the average user, 50% of the population will have difficulty.

Six real people

I often come across products that can be described as well engineered,¬ but not well designed. To create a well designed product you must consider real people. It’s not difficult. Testing design concepts early in a project, with just a handful of people, can help immensely. I sometimes even suggest just six people as a target. While that number sounds small, it can be more difficult to design for six real people than for thousands of imagined people who you don’t know and who can’t give you feedback.

Why are we making thing simple?

The world is complex. Our presentations don’t need to be simple – they need to be interesting. Simplicity is overrated. Take as an example a tabloid newspaper like the National Enquirer. Few designers would call it graphically excellent, it’s visually complex. But it’s extremely interesting. If you don’t believe that, try leaving a copy on your office desk and see how many people you work with will start flipping through it. Yet in our PowerPoint and Keynote presentations we feel a need to oversimplify, striving for simplicity and communicating on a sometimes childish level. A worthier goal – don’t make things simple, make them interesting. Hopefully more interesting than the National Enquirer.

Why are we fantasizing about women?

Women spend or influence 80% of purchases in the United States. Overall, females represent the world’s largest economy. However, females account for less than 20% of product designers and engineers. Understanding females, and designing appropriately, is a tremendous opportunity.

Think about people, not things

Final thought about design: consider real people — it’s on the critical path to better design.

Short Presentations

Design Thinking

By Kristin Shinohara, University of Washington

I teach a class called Design Thinking, which is an undergraduate class that requires students to work with people with disabilities to create a product. They must fit their product to the needs of the person they were working with while making it usable by the greater public. These projects resulted in high fidelity prototypes. Each team synthesized an idea, sketched designs, and created paper mock-ups they could use to test with the user.

This course was aimed to teach students user design and the ability to follow a process. How feasible was it to incorporate accessibility into the design? To do this, I chose users that had disabilities.

In the design thinking process, there is an assumption that we will empathize with our user—however, what does this mean and how does it manifest?  Awareness does not necessarily mean knowledge for how to design for a specific view—designers didn’t usually plan for a user with a disability when prototyping. Furthermore, some of the prototyping tools themselves were not accessible, so students with disabilities may not necessarily be able to design and prototype. How can we create accessible designs if we can’t test them accessibly or design them with accessible tools?

These courses were great at bringing awareness and showcasing how accessibility can be proactive instead of reactive. However, awareness is just the first step—where does it go from there? And how can we use this process to build on the idea of empathy and do better user design?

Universal Design for Digital Media

By Howard Kramer and Elianna James, University of Colorado Boulder

We first taught Universal Design for Digital Media in 2010 as a class in the Alliance for Technology, Learning, and Society, and again annually since 2014. As instructors, we have backgrounds in assistive technology and accessibility. Although the class starts out talking about individuals with disabilities, we also discuss aging demographics and other populations that should be considered when designing with UD principles. Topics covered include the following:

  • Introduction to universal design: who are we designing for and why?
  • The language of design
  • General design principles and an introduction to web design
  • Interaction design and information architecture
  • The case for web standards
  • Structure and semantics: document object model
  • Accessibility
  • The mobile web and accessibility
  • Rich internet applications
  • HTML 5

Is there a difference between usability and accessibility? Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a difference. When people think about accessibility, they specifically think about people with disabilities, whereas usability is perceived to be the average user—but why can’t we focus on both?

Particular aspects of the course are particularly effective at promoting universal design:

  • Emphasizing the multi-faceted benefits, e.g. mobile phones, search engine optimization;
  • assistive technology (AT) user interviews;
  • use of screen reader and other evaluation tools; and
  • the opportunity for students to redesign a site of their choice.

I also have a few book recommendations:

  • A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery
  • The Design of Everyday Things by David A. Norman
  • InterACT with Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design by Erin Anderson, et al.

Universal Design in Capstone Design

By Jered Dean, Colorado School of Mines

By the numbers, The Colorado School of Mines Capstone Design Program is one of the larger client-driven programs in the country:

  • Every semester we have over 300 students, 50-60 teams, engaged with projects provided by clients.
  • The teams are composed of anywhere from 5 – 14 students, combined in multidisciplinary teams to fit the needs of the challenge.

In addition to our scale, the multidisciplinary nature of our program is unique and powerful:

  • We currently combine students from the civil, electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineering degree programs in the College of Engineering and Computational Sciences.
  • This is a great mix of students – especially if you want to address real-world engineering challenges.

At last year’s AccessEngineering CBI, I developed a UD score card that we could use in our capstone course. The goal of this project was to be a simple, quick activity to inject universal design into any design class. The scorecard is meant to spur students to ask questions about their solutions and encourage positive improvements to their designs. Designs are rated on how well they conform to tenets of UD.

Through a concept critique assignment, teams chose a tool to apply to their design and wrote a memo about what they changed in their design based on the tool. Twenty four of fifty one teams chose a UD checklist. Of those, four used it as a criteria to choose a concept to move forward with.

Some teams just didn’t get it and didn’t see how accessibility calculated into their design; however, many students realized the issues they were facing when they actually discussed their products with users and thought in a more broad spectrum way. Most made small tweaks—many of these were around safety, failure, tolerance, labeling, and user interfaces.

Email me at for a digital copy of the UD scorecard.

Introducing Universal Design in a Bioengineering Capstone

By Alyssa Taylor, University of Washington

I attended the AccessEngineering CBI last year, and I learned so much that I decided to join the Universal Design Learning Community that formed at UW last fall. As a result, I brought universal design into my bioengineering capstone course. I teach the second quarter of a two-quarter long design class where teams address current health challenges. I’ve asked each student to consider universal design during his or her design process. My goals were for students to understand UD as a valuable approach and to prepare students to consider UD during the design process.

I started the class by bringing in an expert to teach about accessibility and universal design. Each student then answered reflection questions on these topics and how UD was or could be addressed in his or her project. Students reflected that they needed to empathize with a broad range of others and not just consider their own abilities.

In the next activity, teams brainstormed about how universal design could be used to create better products such as artery visualization tools or infant breathing monitors. Teams presented on their products and how they would make them more universally designed. Students noted multiple benefits:

  • “UD matters so that your product can have a larger user market, user error is minimized, no group of people is excluded from using the product.”
  • “It leads to innovations we can all benefit from.”
  • “Benefits of UD include inventing useful solutions and addressing the humanistic perspective of inclusivity and our moral and social obligation to design for a diverse group of users.”

Survey results indicated these activities were a valuable addition to the course. In the future, I’d like to have more time for discussion on the topic and incorporate more case studies, including explicitly bioengineering examples. The topic was new to most students and they found it engaging and many shared their personal experiences. Providing supplemental instructional materials and scaffolding team-based analysis through guiding questions worked well. Overall, it was an exciting new addition to the curriculum.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom

By Kelly Cross, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Inclusive Illinois is a community committed to cultivating a more diverse community at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. We define diversity as a noun describing a state with many dimensions—diversity should never be just for the sake of diversity, but for the sake of diversity of thought and difference. Inclusion is a verb—the practice of including and building a welcoming environment in which everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Creating an inclusive environment will help us achieve diversity. Using universal design to build teaching environments will encourage students with disabilities to come to class.

The Pedagogical and Research-Based Integration of Diversity into Engineering (PRIDE) Model is one way to think about diversity and inclusion. We have two key assumptions: Learning is a social event and Engineering is culture; students have to identify with engineering and be identified by engineers.

Those within the field already can gatekeep and make judgments on who gets to fit into this culture, and faculty and students have to understand their own identity and culture being brought into the classroom, as well as the power dynamics involved. Furthermore, assessment and grading showcases what an instructor values—if these values do not line up with how a student works, then the instructor is deeming that student as not being worthy of the field.

The Bioengineering Redesigning Engineering Departments (RED) project brings to the table interdisciplinary and integrated work, which requires the ability to hear different perspectives and listen to others within the discipline. It works to integrate the technical and societal aspects of engineering to address the societal needs of healthcare and medicine.

Inclusion can be promoted in the classroom via

  • a diversity statement in your syllabus,
  • regular feedback and communication,
  • visual markers and language, and
  • examining assumptions and stereotypes.

Students benefit from diversity by gaining a variety of insights, advanced critical thinking and leadership skills, conflict management, creativity and innovation, and being prepared to work in a diverse workforce. Diversity, overall, is an outcome of inclusion. Ask yourself, “Am I creating a classroom environment where ALL my students can thrive?”

Opportunities and Pitfalls in Project-Based AT Courses

By Jeff Dusek, Olin College

Project-based assistive technology design experiences often show up in capstone classes, like the MIT Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology (PPAT) class I took and then taught. However, I think universal design should be included in all design classes.

PPAT had small student teams work collaboratively with a person with a disability from the community to develop customized assistive devices. The client is a vital member of the design team, and the course fostered social engagement and connected students with the broader assistive technology community. The class has two sessions a week, an hour lecture and a three hour lab. A very wide range of projects have come out of the course—examples include a dog cart for transporting goods, a touch screen reader with a stylus, and a powerchair backpack track that could allow the user to access the bag on his chair.

This approach values the client’s experiential knowledge related to his or her disability and needs. Students then bring their expertise in engineering and a fresh perspective. Students could also reach out to organizations from the community (who were brought in for lectures) for more options and expertise.

There is value in hard, socially relevant problems. A client-based assistive technology course fosters relationships with clients and community providers. Raising awareness of the needs and opportunities in assistive technology is as valuable as the engineering itself. One of the pitfalls in this project is to avoid the temptation to over-engineer; the simplest solution is often the best. Sometimes simplicity could be much easier for a client rather than a huge project. Low-fidelity prototypes can pay huge dividends at a very low cost. Aesthetics can also be important in a client embracing the design and avoiding stigmatization. Furthermore, sometimes even when planning for accessibility, students wouldn’t create a product that was accessible – e.g., an app used to find an accessible route that can’t be used with a screen reader, voice commands, or other accessibility features.

Where do we go from here? Find ways to incorporate UD and accessibility into all project-based design experiences. Introduce UD throughout the curriculum and make design courses accessible.

iDesignLabs for Co-Design with Community

By Anat Caspi, University of Washington

The Taskar Center for Accessible Technology (TCAT), part of UW’s Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering, promotes user-focused design of accessible technologies. By integrating the end-user into the design cycle, we hope to allow both end users and caregivers to inform the design process, to encourage students’ use of accessible best practices, and to promote the rapid creation of real, usable working prototypes.

Our school has a long history of researching accessibility and accessible technology. TCAT has taken on user-centered design and focuses on a very heterogeneous population. We focus on how technology can change how we engage and focus on our situational and other needs.

The UW’s quarter system doesn’t lend itself to engaging with the community on design processes, since classes only run for 10 weeks at a time. We’ve had to build the structures of practice to work with the community, as well as methods to work with our students to engage differently. TCAT engagement opportunities include vertically integrated projects, where all students can focus on their own research projects under an umbrella of a larger project; accessibility capstones where needs experts, as well as other experts from the community, come to class and co-design with the students; and iDesignLabs and Design for America, which are student-led organizations where students can design for people in the community outside of a classroom setting.

Universal Design and Geopolitics

By Zaza Kabayadondo, Smith College

There are people in the margins of design—people with disabilities can be in this group, as well as people from other countries or in a variety of other social margins. We can think of situational ability as a corollary for global marginalization.

Human centered design can be applied to systems, experiences, and narratives. All products, services, spaces, and narratives can be prototyped. Design thinking is the metacognitive and lateral process to gain insight on human interactions to explore or expand novel approaches. Design is broader than just engineering, but can be used by all to expand their “product.” There are a variety of mindsets that people use to approach designs.

Cultural heritage structures the way we think and how we communicate; within this, newcomers to a culture are often relegated to the periphery and must learn how to be accepted within a community.

An example of a culturally important design is that of the kombi, a minivan that can hold 16-20 people with any vehicle body on a sedan’s turning radius. They are used to desegregate and help transfer people from different parts of South Africa. They are common but not usually legal and can often be dangerous with fast drivers and narrow roads. Commuters and pedestrians both can feel unsafe. Where is the space to represent all involved to be enabled, but not endangered?