Competence building through a Universal Design Wikipedia-Initiative

Anke Rammler, Sandra Frobel and Christian Bühler

TU Dortmund University, Faculty of Rehabilitation Science, D-44227 Dortmund, Germany


The long term success of “universal design” is highly dependent on the dissemination of the concept and the methodologies. It is of crucial importance to start awareness rising already at school level, continued in higher education. Later, information needs to be easily available for professionals in industry, commerce and administration but also for the general public. This student research project focussed on the possibilities of providing information concerning universal design easily available with a low threshold. The information should be available to a wide range of interested parties without high efforts. As the low threshold requires the use of the respective mother tongues, the process is demonstrated exemplarily for the German language. In order to leverage the concept of universal design to a higher level of publicity the project decided to draft, enter and establish an entry “Universal Design” in the German version of Wikipedia. Target groups of this article are the general public, as well as persons in industry, commerce and administration making decisions throughout the design process. The paper starts with an introduction of the Universal Design -Wikipedia-Project followed by a short presentation of the state of the art of the Universal Design concept. After that the consideration of drafting the text, its implementation in Wikipedia, its development and the interaction in the medium is reported. Finally the results, conclusions and recommendations are presented.

1.Introduction: Idea of the Universal Design -Wikipedia Project

At this point in time the knowledge and the comprehension of the “universal design” concept are very diverse. Especially for persons outside the group of experts it is difficult to extrapolate the theme. Whereas in science and academia the concept is described and explained, and those milieus also try to address policy and industry, the awareness in the general public and among students is comparably low. In this respect, the technical term „universal design” is actually not very much under consideration in Germany and also other countries so far. Besides the problem of limited awareness we state the absence of legal principles, so that the realization is very slow at the moment (Miesenberger 2009).

So it is safe to say that on the one hand there is a lack of basic information. On the other hand this prevents a public awareness for a general and permanent implementation (Universal Design©: 2007).

Of course different complementary routes are conceivable to disseminate information about universal design. A public advertising campaign for instance would be suited to raise awareness among the general public. Similarly, award schemes can help to spread the word about such a concept (Bühler 2009). But on the one hand such kinds of campaigns require a lot of money and on the other hand it would mostly remain superficial and would not convey detailed information. Academic information routes like publications in scientific journals, conferences and books mainly reach out to science and academic education. Therefore, the goal of this project was to create a low-budget and a low-threshold information offer for the general public. In the nowadays information society we have to record a lot of new information and communication options: more and more people become members in web communities, are interested in web based information and the importance of web 2.0 applications increase more and more. Particularly young people use these kinds of services frequently, but also business professionals use online services. So it seemed to be a good idea to use a community based information platform. However, the in the social platforms different target groups concentrate in different systems. A special role is taken by the online encyclopdia Wikipedia. It is being used very much by students of all ages, people looking for basic information and its entries rank high in many search engines. It also supports discussion and exchange in the collaborative working space. So the project decided to use Wikipedia for reaching out and disseminating information about the universal design concept. Despite the globalization - the due to the required low threshold the version German of Wikipedia has been taken.

Wikipedia has far-reaching consequences and is therefore central for the broadening of the universal design concept. The German Wikipedia was started in 2001 and is the second sized Wikipedia after the English version. There are 951.582 registered users and 24.538 active users (users who edit articles in the last 30 days) ( 2010-03-16). Actually, many people use this as a first source of information. In January 2010 the main page of the German Wikipedia has been viewed 9.389.950 times, in February 8.405.754 times and in March already 4.432.530 times – as of this writing 2010-03-16 (,, Particularly students at school and also at universities use this for quick referencing and start into information search. Even if one uses a search engine, - for example Google - often the lexical information of Wikipedia is among the first research results.

Wikipedia is a free encyclopaedia; so our article is open for discussion, critique and supplement of other users or interested parties. This is one more advantage for our approach so we hope and expect a progressive advancement of the article.

The project was carried out by a student team of MA students driven by the spirit to share and discuss universal design as an important concept for an inclusive society. All in all we are convinced that it is of crucial importance to break ground towards early information and education of society about the principles and benefits of universal design.

2. State of the art in Universal Design

This chapter provides a brief introduction of the Universal Design concept including definition and explanation, history and sources as well as an explanation of the relevance of the concept. It can also be seen as a baseline for the entry in Wikipedia.

2.1 Definition and explanation

Before we present explanations, examples and background information about the concept it is an essential step to find a definition of universal design. The following definition based on the centre for universal design ( 2010-03-28).

Universal design is a design concept, which creates products, appliances, settings and systems in a way so that they can be used by as many people as possible without any more adaptation or specialisation.

Thus universal design is a process of development of products (appliances, settings, systems, and processes), which can be used by a wide variety of persons with different levels of abilities in a wide variety of situations (settings, conditions, and circumstances) (Council of Europe Publishing 2009). The design of the products is flexible enough to be used without any adaptations or additional techniques. Furthermore these products are compatible with assistive technologies, which are used by persons who still cannot use these products directly.

The term “universal design” is used interchangeably with other concepts, for example “design for all” or “barrier-free design”. Although these terms are similar in their meaning, they have different basic ideas, which are influenced by the cultural background. Besides that the concepts support different understandings of disability. The barrier- free design concept favours more a person oriented and medical view of disability. Opposed to this universal design interprets disability very much as a bio-social construct. However, these different understandings are again subject to interpretation and constitute significant overlap in the practical use. Indeed, in the UN Convention the concepts of universal design, barrier free access and also assistive technology are all used in a complementary understanding.

2.2 History and Sources

The roots of Universal Design can be found in the rehabilitation technologies of the 1950ies. In the Second World War many people were wounded and affected by permanent disabilities so it was important to develop assistive technologies (The Center of Universal Design n.d.).

The term “Universal Design” was first used in the 1980ies by the American architect and designer Ronald L. Mace and his co-workers at Center for Universal Design of the North Carolina State University. The working group, consisting of architects, engineers and designers, developed seven principles of Universal Design (The Center of Universal Design 1997:

Their intention was to utilize products for a wide variety of persons with different levels of abilities in a wide variety of situations.

Also in Europe associations were founded that dealt with Universal Design, for example European e-Accessibility and e-Inclusion action plans ( 2010-03-31). Other examples are the Universal Design e.V. (Germany) or the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (Ireland). In Norway the so called “Plan of Action for Universal Design” was originated ( 2010-03-28). Due to this the access to all important areas of society should be raised for people with disabilities, e.g. in public transport, buildings, parks and the information and communication technologies.

The Council of Europe also supports the promotion of Universal Design. In 2001 they postulated to implement the seven principles of Universal Design in the curricula of building professions. 2007 a general realization of Universal Design was recommended by them to facilitate a full participation for people with disabilities.

The implementation of Universal Design was also postulated by the United Nations in the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This convention was signed and ratified by many countries, for example Germany, Belgium, Austria and France.

2.3 Relevance

Universal Design is a concept, that should be implemented in all areas of society and that should be a standard in everyday life. Anyway Universal Design is able to contribute to economic and social sustainability of environments, products and services (Universal Design©:2007).

Especially in the context of the demographic development, the diversity of people should be noticed as potential. This potential should be involved in design processes to push on the development of living spaces that could be used by everybody. Universal Design is an excellent foundation for this endeavour. Companies and service providers that realize the potential and implement the concept in their processes are able to take in a profitable economic position. Thus the realization of Universal Design in specific design processes can be quite lucrative (Pacific Bell 1994).

Furthermore it can be mentioned, that life careers and biographies don´t proceed straightforward anymore. In fact there is a wide range of possibilities for every person; not only human beings themselves are different but also the construction of their life. One and the same product can serve very different functional and symbolic purposes for a variety of people. Traditional classification of consumers (age, sex, origin, education level) will become less important; from now on good design has to be work in different living spaces (Internationales Design Zentrum Berlin 2009).

2.4 State of implementation in Germany

Although the relevance of Universal Design is notable, a very slow uptake of the concept can be noticed. Reasons for this are various. In Germany different well defined legislation and standards (DIN) in regard to the barrier-free accessibility of public buildings exist. But at the same time similar sets of standards for universal design are lacking. Equally a legal basis and/or the definition of standards for the utilization of the universal design concept are missing. Furthermore there are not enough qualified specialists who can develop, evaluate, and sell products following the rules and ideas of universal design. Many companies fear that the development of products that can be used by everybody is expensive because of high research and development costs (Universal Design© 2007).

Table 1: Structure of the Wikipedia-Article
German version English version
1. Definition 1. Definition
2.Prinzipien des Universellen Designs 2. Principles of Universal Design
2.1 Prinzip 1: Breite Nutzbarkeit 2.1 Principle 1: Equitable Use
2.2 Prinzip 2: Flexibilität in der Benutzung 2.2 Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
2.3 Prinzip 3: Einfache/intuitive Benutzung 2.3 Principle 3: Simple/intuitive
2.4 Prinzip 4: Sensorisch wahrnehmbare Info 2.4 Principle 4: Perceptible Use
2.5 Prinzip 5: Fehlertoleranz 2.5 Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
2.6 Prinzip 6: Niedriger körperlicher Aufwand 2.6 Principle 6: Low physical Effort
2.7 Prinzip 7: Größe und Platz für Zugang und Benutzung 2.7 Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
3. Begriffliche Abgrenzung 3. Conceptual Distinction
3.1 Design für Alle 3.1 Design for All
3.2 Zugängliches Design 3.2 Accessible Design
3.3 Barrierefreiheit 3.3 Barrier-Free Concept
3.4 Abgrenzung 3.4 Distinction
4. Historische Entwicklung 4. Historic Development
5. Relevanz und Ziele 5. Relevance and Goals
6. Good Practice Beispiele 6. Good Practice Examples
6.1 Supermarkt der Generationen 6.1 Supermarket of the generations
6.2 Waschmaschine “Klassik” von Miele 6.2 Washer „Klassik“ by Miele
7. Schwierigkeiten bei der Umsetzung 7. Difficulties in implementation
8. Ideen und Handlungsempfehlungen für eine verstärkte Umsetzung 8. Ideas and Guidance for an enhanced implementation
9. Ausbildung und Training 9. Education and Training
10. Nationale und internationale Projekte 10. Nat. and int. projects
11. Richtlinien und Standards für Universelles Design 11. Guidelines and Standards for Universal Design
12. Einzelnachweise 12. References
13. Bücher 13. Books
14. Weblinks 14. Weblinks

The fear that the cost-recovery is not reached leads to the situation that the number of new developments in this field does not reach its potential. Exploration of the market leads to the conclusion that there is no real pioneer taking the lead. Also a real competition is missing on the market in this respect. Although there are some articles, commentator ships and scientific papers available, a real examination of this subject by the industry is missing. Recently, the demographic development slowly has stared a recognition of the changing markets and future requirements.

3.Strategies and measures in the project implementation

To accomplish the goal of reaching many people throughout society it is necessary to present scientific information in an easy language and to use simple verbalisation. It is also important to emphasize that universal design benefits everyone. The information needs to be presented in a lexical style, easy to read and understand. It needs to present the relevant information but being short enough for easy reception. References provide guidance and links to more detailed and original information. The structure of the article has to be clear and comprehensible. After an extensive literature research (books, websites and projects) the following structure including the following points (table 1) has been elaborated:

As the table shows we started the article with a definition (1.) of Universal Design and – to illustrate the concept – with a description of the seven principles of Universal Design (The Center of Universal Design 1997) (2.). These two points should give readers a brief glimpse of the concept. It has been considered necessary to demonstrate boundaries to related concepts because in the literature search it was noticed, that the term “Universal Design” is often put on a level with similar concepts like “Design for All”, “Accessible Design” or the “Barrier-free Concept” (3.). A connection but also clear boundary is helpful to clarify the background and the goals of the concept. Therefore, it is also considerable to explain the development and historical background of Universal Design as we do in this paper (4.).

Paragraph 5 “Relevance and Goals” emphasizes the sustainability of Universal Design and the fact that Universal Design benefits everyone. These arguments are especially interesting for designers, developers and service providers because they explain why these persons should consider Universal Design in their design processes. Other parts of the population are informed why it is necessary to take basic notice of Universal Design.

To underline the basic idea and the realization of universal design best practice illustrations are very supportive. The aim is to make the abstract concept of universal design concretely recognisable and understandable. However the search for best practise turned out to be surprisingly difficult and altogether is to notice, that there is no real „best“ practice in universal design. Best practice is in fact a goal that has to be reached in the future. Therefore it comes to a conceptual reduction in the Wikipedia-article and the term „good practice“ is used (6.).

Although some literature about examples exists a differentiation to other concepts is missing. Often the examples are conforming to the barrier- free concept but not to the universal design idea. Moreover, some products are classified as universal design, but simultaneously these products were only produced for a special target group. For example wheelchairs or products which were focussed on elderly people or people with disabilities were stated as universal design products (e.g. Herwig 2008). With the understanding of universal design as a concept that creates products that are usable for as many persons as possible these special products cannot be defined as examples for universal design.

A further problem is that there exist no commonly accepted criteria for the evaluation of best practice examples in universal design at this point in time (Miesenberger 2009). Groups of scientists who are searching for best practice examples establish their own criteria.

For this information project it was decided to choose the principles of the Centre of universal design of the North Carolina University as a solid basis to evaluate good practice examples. This way an orientation with the original concept was guaranteed. Potential examples were screened whether they are conforming to the principles.

Finally two examples of good practice have been selected. In the Wikipedia- article one service (supermarket of generations) and one product (washing machine by Miele) are presented (Internationales Design Zentrum Berlin 2009) . This should not mean that these are the only existing examples: As explained at the beginning of this paper, other interested users are of course invited to add more examples of good practice for showing that universal design can and must be adapted in many different sectors.

In the chapter “Difficulties in implementation” (7.) the background of slow uptake of the Universal Design concept is explained. However, as the focus should not be just on the deficits and weaknesses of the concept some solution-oriented strategies are presented in the next chapter called “Ideas and Guidance for an enhanced implementation” (8.).

In the chapter “Education and Training” (9.) readers are informed about first approaches of implementing the Universal Design concept in curricula and advanced trainings. Overall is to be noticed that Universal Design is far too little considered in education and training programs. Nevertheless persons in charge of this field can get summarized information in the article and if they want to know more about one approach they are able to grab the original source. References, where and how universal design is already being implemented, and an example of national and international projects (10.) were depicted in the Wikipedia- article. Through these examples the realisation of universal design in Germany could be promoted.

As already mentioned in Germany and many other countries there is no legal foundation for Universal Design exept the general statement in the UN Convention. However, in chapter 11 “Guidelines and Standards for Universal Design” some documents which could be used as guidelines for the implementation of Universal Design, e.g. article 2 of the convention of the rights for people with disabilities, ISO Guide 71 or the European Concept of Accessibility (ECA) are referenced. So this chapter can give also an orientation for designers and service providers. The article is completed with a list of references (12.) to clarify that the article is well researched and credit to the original sources is given. Furthermore relevant books (13.) and weblinks (14.) are referenced to enable interested readers to get more information about Universal Design and its framework conditions. These elements can be helpful in the process of making Universal Design more famous in the general public.

4. Development of the Wikipedia Article

After research and drafting of the content it was important to prepare the implementation and create the Wikipedia- article. At the beginning of our project we had noticed that there already existed a Wikipedia article about Universal Design. However, it was quite short and far below the potential. The few written lines needed to be substituted by a complete new article. The students of the team signed up as active members of the community portal and acquainted themselves with the rules and the formal criteria. The main task was to reinitialize our computer written article and transfer it in the German Wikipedia. In order to reach out to the general public who partially never kept in touch with the concept it seemed to be not sufficient just to create the article in the Wikipedia. It was also very important to interconnect the article with other articles. These are e.g. mobility, design in general, product, building, washing machine, web design, media design or product design. Further, interlinkages with already existing articles about Design-for-all, accessibility, inclusion etc. had to be implemented. All these connections/ links allow readers to surf through the articles. It also creates many entrance points to the article on universal design.

During the process, we had to await further news and discussions from other authors. The task was and is to gather critical comments and to register discussions. Many little editorial comments have been introduced by experienced Wikipedia activists.

A critical review by one user has raised the point, that the difference between the concepts “universal design” and “design for all” is not articulate well enough and that an execution of the redundance would be necessary. Although we improved the article and pointed out the boundaries between both concepts there is a still running discussion about the question, if the articles “universal design” and “design for all” should be unified to one article.

Other critical comments beared on some statements in our article that are - from the viewpoint of some users - not verified enough. It is of course our endeavour to react consequently and fast to such comments to contribute to a continual enhancement.

5. Results

In the following sections we provide a first attempt to evaluate the success of the project so far. It is based on the feedback and statistics from the system.

Content supplements from other Wikipedia authors to the article are not yet determined. This could indicate that the article is written too complicate or too long. But it could also indicate that the article is detailed enough and contains all relevant information; anyway we get positive feedback, e.g.: “Otherwise the universal design article is written substantially better and easier to understand [than the article “design for all”, author´s note]. The subtle differences between the concepts are there e.g. very clearly annotated in tabular form” (metaphrase from the authors. Original by Wikipedia-user jrkoff: 2010).

One indicator for the success of the ambitious scheme “Universal Design Wikipedia- Initiative” could be the page view statistic. In comparison to the prior months (December 2009: 288, January 2010: 434) an enhancement of activate the file in February (623) and March (976 as of this writing 2010-03-16) can be noticed (,,, 2010-03.16). We suppose that this is not an accidental circumstance but rather linked with our interconnecting activities. This is however certainly non- exclusive the only indicator. It is definitively a result that we create a low-threshold information offer for the general public and that the discussion with other users in Wikipedia got started. We interpret this fact as a first step in the right direction. To check how the internet users have internalized the concept is a demanding task and could be a purpose for the future.

6. Conclusions and Recommendations

The results of our literature study and discussions for an enhanced dissemination of the universal design concept are conceptualized in the Wikipedia-article. We created a stable article of good quality. Similar work can easily achieved by each UD-activity group. Also, everyone is invited to complement and update the article. The article provides the option to inform a wide range of people and to encourage the industrial decision makers and other interested persons to occupy themselves with universal design. It is necessary to respond to a wide target group to elucidate the concept of universal design.

In conclusion of our own experience, we recommend interested groups e.g. from Universities to follow a similar path in their own country. The entry on Universal Design in the German Wikipedia could be used as a starting point. These kinds of low threshold information to the public and in particular to education milieus have a potential to spread awareness on the longer term. However, from our analysis of the slow take up of Universal Design also other activities are needed for a successful development: the clarification of terms and definitions, the development of criteria to guide activities in this area, the creation of a legal foundation, a specification of the involvement of users, options of direct governmental funding, an increase in communication and counselling, the funding of research and opportunities of the exchange of experiences, a reinforcement of education and advanced training, a generation-spanning and cross-cultural product design, as well as an increase of efforts in public relations.

Of course our own project can be labelled as a low budget activity, but as an activity that includes a wide outreach option in the country. So the long-term objective of our initiative can be fulfilled: to bring a forum and serious discussion about universal design forward, not only in sections of science, but also in other sections of the population. Due to the fact that our approach does not require a high budget, the realization is not very complicated and open for participation we invite interested persons in other countries to take up our approach. A first step towards that could be cooperation with project groups at universities in other countries. Such a cooperation enables a broad conceived interlinkage with similar articles in other languages.


To the group of students from MA S3.3 at the Technical University of Dortmund, Faculty of Rehabilitation Science: Julia Budde, Kristin Kühler and Anne Walther. The project was conducted under the direction of Prof. Dr. Christian Bühler, Chair of Rehabilitation Technology. Thank you for your support.