From AT to UD and Back Again

Jon Sanford

Assistive technology, accessible design, and universal design are three, often competing approaches to increase participation of people with disabilities in the workplace. While the goal of all three approaches is to enhance performance of people with disabilities, the manner in which that goal is achieved by each approach differs in important ways. As a result, there is often confusion over which approach is the most appropriate. According to the Tech Act, AT is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities" (Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-407). In contrast, accessible design is specialized design that minimizes environmental demands on people with disabilities. Finally, UD is the design of everyday products to minimize environmental demands on all individuals, including those with disabilities. The confusion over which approach is the best stems from a focus on the object (i.e., any piece of equipment, etc.; specialized design; or all products), rather than on the purpose of the object. When the focus is on purpose (i.e., increasing functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities vs. minimizing environmental demands on people with disabilities, vs. minimizing environmental demands on everyone), it is clear that the three approaches are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. More importantly it is clear that enhancing the performance, and consequently employment of people with disabilities, is dependent on integrating the different approaches not only into the workplace, but also within each other.

Jon Sanford is the Co-Director of the Work RERC and a Research Architect at the Atlanta VA Rehab R&D Center. He holds a Masters of Architecture from the Georgia Tech and is one of the few architects engaged in Rehabilitation R&D. He has been engaged in research on the impact of the physical environment on functioning of people with disabilities and older adults for over 25 years and is a leading expert in Universal Design. He is a co-author of the UD Principles, which have been translated into a dozen different languages. His research has covered all facets of accessibility from Universal Design to Accessible Design to AT and in a range of environments from workplace to housing to long term care facilities. Many of his efforts have been used to inform revisions to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines and he is widely published in both the rehab and aging journals.

Presentation abstract from the 'Workplace Accommodations: State of the Science' conference
September 15-16, 2005, Altanta, GA