The terms “accessibility” and “universal design” are often used together these days. But what is actually meant by these two terms?  Sina Bahram(link is external), a digital accessibility expert, broke it down for us at our January PEAT Talk.

Sina defined universal design as something that benefits the widest group of people possible. Universal design incorporates accessibility (functionality for people with a wide range of abilities) with usability (easiness of use for everyone). There are seven principles of universal design(link is external). For example, think of a team reviewing a graph at a meeting. A way to make this accessible to a team member who is blind  is to provide the actual data set in an Excel spreadsheet, so the employee can use a screen reader. This fulfills two principles of universal design:

  • Equitable use – everyone is able to look at the data; it doesn’t have to be the same experience
  • Flexibility of use – workers can review the same data in different ways

Sina stressed that universal design is not a “one and done” thing, but a mindset that developers should include in every phase of product development. He talked about the importance of “failing forward” (i.e., trying an improvement, even if it doesn’t work completely) and also that it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” commitment. Many important changes can be done with zero or little dollars.

By practicing universal design and ensuring accessibility  in workplace systems and processes, employers benefit in a number of ways. Training time is decreased, because workers are better able to use technologies that are simple and intuitive. Less  work falls through the cracks, because workers are able to perform tasks when there’s turnover or someone is out sick. And finally, workers are more productive, because technology problems are not getting in their way.

Check out the PEAT Talks video, and share your own comments and thoughts. Are there examples of universal design in an employment setting that you can share?


PEAT Talks is a monthly virtual speaker series to showcase organizations and individuals whose work is advancing accessible technology in the workplace. Held the third Thursday of every month at 2pm ET, these events are designed to be energetic and interactive discussions highlighting a spectrum of exciting work. Featured speakers will deliver a 10- to 15- minute talk and then field questions from attendees. To see upcoming events in this series, please visit our calendar.