This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Developing an accessibility identity program

Effort based on principles of universal design forged by UB IDEA Center

Published: July 28, 2005

Contributing Editor

Have you ever wondered what the wheelchair symbol that you see on parking spaces and public bathroom doors actually means?

That symbol is the International Symbol of Accessibility, and the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center), a major international research center in the School of Architecture and Planning, is working to improve the design and its worldwide comprehension and recognition.

The Universal Design Identity Project (UDid) is funded by a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has substantiated the need for better ways to identify spaces, places, systems and products that are accessible to everyone, regardless of physical, perceptual, cognitive, economic or situational ability.

Project co-directors Beth Tauke, UB associate professor of architecture, and Alex Bitterman, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, are developing an identity program to facilitate recognition of rooms, facilities, consumer products and user-interface systems like those used in ATMs and other computer-based systems.

The team members include Beverly McLean, research associate professor, School of Architecture and Planning, and Edward Seinfeld, professor of architecture and director of the IDEA Center, who serves as the senior project advisor.

"An identity program usually consists of a logo and accompanying typeface, a slogan, soundmark or jingle, and rules for the use of those elements," says Tauke. "Creating a nontraditional identity program that can be used by everyone, regardless of culture, language, and physical, cognitive and perceptual ability, however, is quite a challenge."

She points out that a hearing-impaired person often cannot hear a jingle, for instance, and a visually impaired person cannot see a logo.

"We also must consider the 'meaning' that a particular visual symbol or tune imparts to individuals of particular ethnic, racial, social, age or ability groups so we don't send conflicting or offensive messages."

Bitterman says the team's first step has been to investigate the public attitudes of a broad group of people in many countries toward accessibility symbols and toward universal design itself.

"Our research needs to reflect real-world opinions of a very large section of the population," Bitterman says, "and by the end of the summer we expect to have surveyed more than 2,500 people in 115 countries who speak more than 75 languages and range from children to adults over the age of 100."

"We will use their input to produce a universal-design identity program that features variety of new techniques," Tauke says.

Bitterman adds that the program will exceed the legally mandated requirements for accessibility as defined by the accessibility guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and will have clear, cohesive characteristics and an attendant graphic standard.

"The NEA maintains that establishing an identity for universal design is an important next step in order to insure that the concept is accepted and used by a broad audience of consumers, design professionals, industry leaders and academics," he says.

Aspects of the program are being tested in a limited capacity at UB. More information can be found at

The IDEA Center, housed in the School of Architecture and Planning, is dedicated to improving the design of environments and products by making them more usable, safer and appealing to people with a wide range of abilities.

Originally based on the concepts of accessible or "barrier free" design and the normalization of space, the center has expanded to embrace the concept of universal design, or design of places and products that are usable by and desirable to a broad range of people, including people with disabilities and other often overlooked groups.

The center is internationally recognized for its work in providing resources and technical expertise in architecture, product design, facilities management and the social and behavioral sciences to engineers, architects, planners, companies, not-for-profit agencies, academics and researchers throughout the world.