Universal Design: What else can be done?

(Featured Image from: Cobo Designer)

Universal design is a set of ideas for designing to be inclusive of all people with special emphasis on those who have a handicap and/or other disabilities/ medical conditions. This term and set of ideas originate from the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) law and standards.

 While working in retail, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with people with various personalities and behaviors between training new-hires, engaging with my co-workers, and tending to customers. The experiences that have stayed with me are the encounters that went sideways. I ask myself, “what could I have done differently? Was there more that I could’ve done? What were my options at the time and did I think thoroughly enough or just reacted too quickly?” A few of those experiences were while interacting with customers. The encounters I’m addressing will be universal design related.

One weekend, I was working and spent some time managing the fitting room. During the weekends, it’s usually pretty busy in the fitting rooms so, I had to give customers a number according to the number of items they had and direct them to a vacant room to try own their garments. We had eight rooms in total with one of them being the handicap/wheelchair accessible fitting room. This room was to be left available for those who were trying on with wheelchairs, strollers or those who needed physical assistance while trying own their garments.

On this particular day, it wasn’t too busy at the time; there were plenty of rooms open including the biggest room. A woman comes to the fitting room and I greet her and ask her how many items she has. She tells me how many and proceeds to ask me if she could use the big room. I told her, like I’ve told many people, that the room was reserved for those who have strollers or wheelchairs. My store didn’t let just anyone use that room since people like to make a mess back there and also it was a way to prevent theft if and when I had to leave the fitting room unattended. The woman then says to me, “I have MS so I really need the bigger room in case I have to sit without hurting myself”. I immediately and completely felt crappy, and I deserved to. I went ahead and walked her to the room.

Looking back, how could I have approached the situation differently? Could I have? What were my options to make this experience more pleasant for the customer?

I felt and still feel that I should not have to be told a person’s disabilities in order to help them more efficiently. It’s a really personal detail that didn’t necessarily need to be talked about. As a designer, what can could be done to better assist customers and also follow guidelines of retail stores?

Designers could design and specify all dressing rooms with stable seating such as a bench or built-in seating. Along with seating, designers could make all fitting rooms wheelchair-accessible so that they not only accommodate wheelchairs thus making them wide enough for those who may need extra space. I understand there are limitations due to aesthetics, building and tenant code standards and, frankly, budget (money, money, money). What are some items that could be traded off to make certain spaces more comfortable? I know for sure having a “waiting area” would be a nice touch in my old store, but the current floor plan would not allow this. With incoming garments flowing through often, there just isn’t any room for anything else.

Initial space planning is crucial. In the event this store gets a renovation, will accessibility be on the top of the priority list? Possibly. Sometimes the only answer is to obtain more space. If that’s not possible, the schematic drawings need to reviewed and the new floor plan needs to have multiple options (as most design processes do) that address the obstacles in the space.

Another experience I have had was a bit familiar to me. This time I’m using the register to ring customers out. I don’t remember all the details that went with this encounter, but what I do remember is most important. I’m ringing out a woman’s purchase. When I’m finished scanning everything, I tell her the total for her purchase. At first she doesn’t say anything and I repeat myself when she motions for me to say it again. So, I say it again for her and say it slower. I’m used to do this since we have plenty of customers who do not speak English or understand it. What happens next is what surprised me. She then signs that she is deaf. As she signs it, she is also saying it.

There’s probably nothing else I could’ve done at the time to make the experience better for her, but what can designers do to make shopping and purchases easier for those who are deaf or blind? As someone who is hear-impaired, I understand the difficulties that arise when I’m talking to people face-to-face and on the phone. I habitually read lips so that I don’t miss any details in a conversation (even then, I still can miss words unless I’m wearing my hearing aids).

Store planners and companies can come together to brainstorm ideas and design spaces that better accommodate customers with these disabilities. This could be taken a step further and make changes on the actual garments like make price tags with braille for those who are losing their sight. On the tag, it can include a brief description of what the garment looks like followed by the price (a quick search on Google showed me that these two ideas already exist independently).


(Braille Clothing tags)

This can also help those who are shopping with others and want to have an idea of what they are buying without having to rely on their companion describing it to them. Maybe there can a system that interprets what a person says and has computerized hands signing the words on a screen for a person who is deaf. Companies could also invest in training employees in basic sign language, but that might not be ideal as everyone has different learning abilities.

These are all ideas from the top of my head. Some designs are pretty expensive if you look at the details. Some designs may also not be a priority to a company when other factors come into play. I know I’m not the only one thinking of ways to aid those with disabilities to make life more accessible and more comfortable for everyone. I’d love to hear more ideas being churned out about universal design in environments such as retail and educational institutions.

Do you have any ideas you would like to share? Any resources that might help me in my personal research? I’m all ears (umm..and eyes)!



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