February 11, 2021

Addressing Neurodiversity Through Universal Design

How does Universal Design address neurodiversity? This question comes up more and more as I present the topic of Universal Design to a wide variety of organizations. There is an entire topic on Universal Design for Learning (UDL is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences). My focus is on the built environment, leveraging Universal Design as a basis where we design for everyone providing a foundation that begins to also accommodate a neurodiverse population.

We all perceive information differently adding to our uniqueness and diverse abilities. Thus, neurodiversity can be defined as the “individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population.” Neurodiversity is often used as an umbrella term including such conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Tourette syndrome, and ones adversely affected by specific seasonal disorders, among others. For comparison, just as the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 20 percent of the population has some form of disability, approximately 15 to 20 percent of people are considered neurodiverse.

Having neurodiverse thinkers at the table provides creative insights on problem-solving, design thinking, and visual patterns.

While we all think somewhat differently, we do not want to be treated or looked upon as different. We want to maintain our independence and not have to use special accommodations. We do best when we interact, learn and experience space at our unique, neuro-norm. We believe that by accommodating the needs of a neurodiverse community in the workplace, it will allow individuals and teams to flourish while providing a competitive advantage in the market. Having neurodiverse thinkers at the table provides creative insights on problem-solving, design thinking, and visual patterns. Embracing and supporting a neurodiverse team will lead to better outcomes.

Universal Design is a practice that embraces and responds to creating inclusive environments. It is hyper-focused on celebrating and valuing the diversity of people as a natural part of the human experience. As we conduct Universal Design assessments across the globe and help organizations live their values, several UD strategies that support a neurodiverse community come to mind.

Universal Design Strategies that Intersect with Neurodiversity

  • Do not assume that users are “typical”
  • Provide clarity in wayfinding and sightlines to help orient an individual
  • Utilize multiple modes of communication
  • Present materials, signage, and graphics in different ways
  • Visual information on monitors should contain pictures, captions, audible formats, and distinct shapes
  • Text is made available in multiple formats including text to speech, braille, large print, and improved contrast
  • Provide flexible, yet stable furniture for learning environments and meetings to take place in a variety of configurations allowing for diverse learning and comfort preferences
  • Control acoustics for appropriate reverberation levels
  • Design of restrooms and other like spaces should respect an individual’s privacy
  • Provide users the ability to control the lighting within a space, outdoor glare, and reduce the brightness
  • Use low reflectance surfaces
  • Consider providing noise-canceling headphones
  • Provide a quiet room on each floor
  • Controls and equipment can be positioned for both right, and left-handed users

We continue to learn and build upon these strategies realizing that those who use the spaces we design are all different, and that is a good thing because whether it is a conversation or design solution, the outcome will better represent the world we live in.

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