The difference between accessibility and universal design

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So what is the difference between accessibility and universal design? Is there even a difference? Yes, indeed there is.

These terms are often used interchangeably. There are some overlaps, but they have important distinctions and the motivation behind each come from different places.

  • Accessibility – the focus is on compliance and meeting minimum mandatory requirements for access and facilities for people with impairments.

  • Universal design - the aspiration is to provide environments that, as much as possible, intrinsically meet the needs of everyone who will use a space regardless of age, size, impairment, culture or ability. It usually involves design elements that exceed minimum mandatory requirements and softens the sharp edges of accessibility.


Accessibility offers a basic, prescriptive level of usability. It is a way of establishing a consistent baseline level of facilities provided in new buildings and existing buildings undergoing renovation.

Here in New Zealand minimum requirements for accessibility are set out in the Building Act 2004 with NZS4121:2001 cited as the acceptable solution. Other acceptable solutions for accessibility are found in select clauses of the Building Code with these often a repetition of information contained in NZS4121:2001, though sometimes there are contradictions. These acceptable solutions establish a minimum level of accessibility in the New Zealand built environment.

It is a compliance-based approach to access and a good starting point for making sure that people living with impairments have a way to get into spaces and carry out basic necessary activities. But it may not feel very inclusive or inviting to the people it is intended to benefit if, as an example, the result is a ramped entry at a different end of the building from the entrance with steps that most people will use.

Universal Design

Universal design is when the needs of everyone, regardless of size, age, ability, impairment or culture, are considered equally to achieve a built environment with spaces and facilities able to be used by all, with equal dignity.

This concept aims to provide places that can be independently accessed, understood and used by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. It is about finding a solution that works universally, such as an entrance everyone is able to use rather than the separate ramped entry in the back.

The goal of universal design is to foster diversity and social inclusion by encouraging participation in society with a built environment that is adaptable to the human condition with its lifetime of changing needs and abilities. This environment does not need to cost more; with thoughtful and creative planning from the very beginning of a project, universal design can be implemented as cost effectively as the required accessibility features.

Accessibility outlines the “must haves” for those with disabilities while universal design is the step beyond, the “better to haves” of the built environment.

If you want more information about these concepts or have comments, we want to know. Contact us via any of the methods on the website. We hope to hear from you.