“The problem is not how to wipe out all the differences, but how to unite with all the differences intact.” This quotation by Rabindra Nath Tagore sums up what the designers, academicians and experts at a conference on Universal Design, held in New Delhi last week, wanted to articulate.
Nine Indian authors from across fields such as industrial design, architecture, ergonomics and from academic institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and the School of Planning and Architecture, and a few NGOs have come together to formulate five principles of Universal Design for the Indian context, which were presented at the conference. The Indian chapter of the Universal Design concept is sponsored by NID.
The guidelines are based on the premise that buildings and products must be designed to be usable by all intended users, have a range of abilities and in various contexts. “We are not a homogenized mass. Designers assume that they are building for young, able-bodied people like themselves maybe. But one size doesn’t fit all. For instance, a chair presupposes that we all have the same posture, weight, habits or spend the same amount of time in that chair. But that’s not how it is in the real world,” says Prof. Abir Mullick, co-author of these guidelines and professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, US. He has been teaching industrial design and architecture for over 20 years.
The five principles for India include:
•Equitable (saman): The design is fair and non-discriminating to diverse users in Indian context, provides flexibility, customization and personalization.
•Usable (sahaj): The design is operable by all users, provides comfort, safety and support during use, minimizes instruction and prevents misuse.
•Cultural (sanskritik): The design respects past and present Indian cultural idioms, makes social connection, allows comprehension in multiple languages.
•Economy (sasta): The design respects affordability and cost considerations.
•Aesthetics (sundar): The design’s aesthetic enhances universal appeal and use.
These principles are a derivation of the established seven Universal Design Principles formulated at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, US, in 1997. In the US, examples of Universal Design elements that have been incorporated into everyday use are sidewalk ramps for people in wheelchairs, a museum that allows visitors to listen to or read descriptions, and low-floor buses.
But why a separate set of principles for India? Mullick explains that design cannot be de-contextualized. “Ramps in India always come with sort of breakers, which are absent in most ramps abroad. And I used to wonder why. It’s because in India, wheelchairs are always pushed by someone, so the breaker prevents the wheelchair from rolling back. Whereas abroad most wheelchairs are automatic and motor-driven. So in the Indian context, such a ramp makes sense,” says Mullick.
While the guidelines for design are good but do they translate into application? And what about business matters? Co-author and NID professor Balaram S. answers by highlighting the benefits of capitalizing on these principles. “India has 2.19 crore persons with disabilities. That’s one-third of the total world’s disabled population. That’s a huge market to tap into. If your design allows disabled people to use it, it only means you can expand your market. That’s the power of inclusive design.” The Delhi Metro and Dilli Haat are examples of such Universal Design.
Though the origin of Universal Design resides in the disability rights movement, it is not restricted to use by differently abled persons. “It’s more about covering a range of abilities. My five-year-old son is left handed, and that’s hardly a handicap. Yet he finds it difficult because something as basic as his writing desk opens and folds up from the right side, and has no option for a left handed person,” says Balaram.