Universal Design

In 2018 we introduced a new feature to the Scarlet Opus Trend Hub at the Decor+Design exhibition in Melbourne; our ‘She Says …’ seminar series. Women make up a big majority of the visitors and we thought it might be inspiring, well received and certainly interesting, if there was a programme of talks by-women-for-women. Of course, men were welcome to join us for any of the seminars (and some did), but the speakers were all female. And what a success it was!

In searching for women to speak, content, experience, passion and purpose were our primary criteria. We found many great speakers, you can read about them here. But, one speaker in particular inspired me to think about design, buildings and some specific everyday features in an entirely different way.

Since we had the privilege of being able to share time with and listen to her Angel Dixon has gone on to achieve even more, her year culminated in being named QLD Young Australian of the Year 2019.

The heading in the results of my google search back in May 2018 said ‘Angel Dixon, Australia’s first adult agency signed model with a physical impairment to be featured in a national television campaign and the first female model with a physical impairment to showcase designs in Melbourne Fashion Week. She is also a 2 time international Mercedes Benz Fashion Week model’. It was then that I knew we had to have her in the seminar schedule.

Angel explains what her passion is also what the seminar subject was:

“There are many different ways to remove the barriers to participation and opportunity that people with disability encounter. I am passionate about universal design and authentic representation. 
My days are spent collaborating with brands and organisations on how to implement universal design principles, include people with disability and produce inclusive products and content. 
This line of work has landed me in some unique places. I have assisted in planning international events, showcased clothing on fashion runways, met with leading brands and designers, helped small businesses and councils with accessibility and town planning, addressed countless audiences and lectured at universities but most importantly, I have been appointed as the Advocacy Manager and CEO for organisations I believe in.” 

Angel has provided some really thought provoking answers to a few questions I sent to her and we thought it would be good to share them with you …

1)     Even in the simple act of putting these questions together, I feel an element of anxiety about saying the right/wrong thing, using an offending word. How would you suggest that we all talk about this subject? If discussions happened anxiety and offence ‘free’ openly and constructively, surely more could be achieved?

There is no right thing to say because people with disability are diverse and equally have a great diversity of preferences when it comes to the use of language. It is always best to ask the person you are referring to their preferred language or if they want their impairment of community identity to be referred to at all. If you don’t have that opportunity it is best to stick with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability terminology: Persons/people with disabilities. A more contemporary term is person/people with disability. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability has adopted the ‘Social Model of disability’ that I spoke of earlier and that model is reflected in its use of language.

There are wrong things to say and do when referring to or interacting with people with disability. Unfortunately, because of the lack of understanding of disability and impairment in our society, people with disability have to endure some pretty rough encounters. Sometimes, peoples curiosity gets the better of them and they forget that an impairment is just part of an individual and that we are all human beings and should be treated that way. I have experienced people pushing my wheelchair for me without asking. A common question I get from people I have never met is “what’s wrong with you?”. Another common occurrence is people wanting to know the intricacies of someone’s diagnosis which is private information.

2)     In the seminar you gave at Décor+Design last year, you explained that you don’t think of yourself as ‘disabled’; more that the world isn’t designed well for you. Can you elaborate more on this mindset?

I actually do identify as disabled. The concept I discussed in my presentation was the ‘Social Model of Disability’ which says that people are disabled by the way society is built, not by a diagnosis or impairment. 

I use the word disabled in that way – meaning that I am disabled by the barriers I encounter. Barriers can be both tangible and intangible. I have a physical impairment so lack of accessibility to environments is disabling to me. An example of an intangible barrier is when a person I don’t know makes a comment or judgment based on the way I mobilize. 

3)     You are widely known for being ‘Australia’s first adult disabled model to be featured in a national television campaign’ (as well as for many other notable achievements), how does this sit with your own view?

I am an activist before anything else. I find appropriate vehicles to maximize the reach of my message at the appropriate times. Media and advertising are where I spend most of my time, modelling is included in that. 


My body being included in mainstream campaigns and on runways is multifaceted from an activist perspective. Representing people with disability as part of the general diversity of our community is new so there are learnings for each brand I work with. They need to think about accessibility and authentic and incidental representation. One of the best side effects of a brand practising inclusive advertising is that their learnings generally extend to other areas of the brand or organisation. 

It is also extremely important and powerful for people with disability to have role models and at the moment, there are next to no people with disability in leadership roles or in mainstream areas. I receive messages of thanks and support after every campaign I do. 

In our view, you are an excellent role model for all women (people), especially young women (people).

4)     Can you provide a few examples of product/place design that has been created with the intention of making things easier for ‘disabled’ users, but has (I think you said) merely made their challenge stand-out and indeed only help one group whilst perhaps excluding another?

Accessibility is still thought of as an option to people who can easily access typical environments / technology / education etc. When in fact, access is a universal human right and it is a right that must be upheld by all of us. People from marginalized groups, in general, don’t need saviors, we need people in positions to effect change to support us in accessing, realising and enjoying our human rights. 

Because of a lack of understanding and the mistake of not including people with disability in design processes, our society has developed band-aid fixes for access purposes. An example is the “disabled access” button at the entrance of buildings. That button is a physical example of something I like to call “exclusion because of confusion.” It’s a band-aid fix and it’s exclusionary, and most of the time causes more problems for its users.

The designers of that button have made some big calls about people that use doors. By putting a wheelchair symbol, the universal symbol for disability on that button, they’re saying that all people who use it identify as disabled which is not always the case. They’re saying that all people without the capability to use a typical door must have the capability to press a button or see a button or feel a button. Which then says a lot about our society’s general perception of people who don’t have that capability, which is that they will not be accessing environments independently. Which is simply not true.

The alternative to that button is an automatic door. Using a sensor to pick up movement or matter, turns any door into a universally designed product and is usable by everyone and particularly useful for parents with prams, delivery workers and people with impairments.

  1. What are the 3 simplest design considerations that architects & interior designers could make, that would bring about the biggest improvements to the world?
  • Familiarizing yourself with Universal Design principals. Universal design is defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
  • Include the greatest diversity of people in the creation of whatever you are designing – people with disability included.
  • Remember that equal access is a human right. An alternative entrance for wheelchair users, for example, is not acceptable. Equal access has positive and widespread social impact. It reminds everyone that people with impairments are equal members of society and that we all belong.
  1. Are you able to share a really good example (in your opinion) of universal design?

There is a cartoon that I use often to explain universal design; a bunch of people are at the entrance of a building that has both stairs and a ramp. It has been snowing and there is a person clearing the stairs of snow so people can enter the building. There is a person using a wheelchair in the crowd and they say “could you please clear the ramp”. The person shoveling snow says “I’ll clear the stairs for everyone and then I’ll clear the ramp for you”. The wheelchair user then says “but if you clear the ramp, we can all use it”. 

That cartoon is fantastic because it not only explains universal design but it also helps people understand exclusion. 

Hopefully, Angel will have started many of you considering your own design projects, product developments, new ideas from a new perspective, an inclusive perspective. Maybe sometime soon, we will all be ‘Universal Designers’, in the meantime, perhaps we can all start by becoming advocates for Universal Design.

Angel Dixon: Inclusion / InstagramFacebook

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