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  • Melinda Steffy

Universal Design as Expansive Empathy

If you spend any amount of time with me talking about project planning or design thinking, you will inevitably hear me talk about Universal Design. I’m a big fan.

The term means exactly what it sounds like: designing to be universally usable. The concept originally comes from architecture and building design, and is regularly applied in product design, education, and communications as well.

Universal Design starts with an assumption that people’s bodies and minds work in different and multiple ways. The goal of the design process is to create an end product that all users can fully engage with. It embeds aesthetics as a core value, so that spaces/tools not only function well, but are also attractive and pleasant to engage with.

An architectural design that weaves together stairs and a ramp in a zig-zag pattern.
stairs + ramp FTW!

What does it mean for nonprofits?

The nonprofit sector exists *because* of systemic injustice – but it perpetuates systemic injustice as well. (See: pretty much every post by Nonprofit AF.) Aspirational mission statements aside, nonprofit organizations are just as plagued by racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, and exploitive capitalism as everywhere else.

Universal Design is a paramount framework to ensure equity and inclusion. It’s easy to expand the definition to include not just diversity of ability, but also of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. You can apply the principles to strategic planning, program design, audience development, evaluations, and more.

Universal Design means you are always asking:

Is what we are doing equitable?

  • Can all stakeholders* engage in equivalent and meaningful ways without segregation or stigma?

  • Are we ensuring privacy and safety?

  • Are we minimizing the risk of harm?

  • Are we proactively creating opportunities, opening doors, and making space?

Is what we are doing attractive / appealing?

  • Do our stakeholders feel cared for in their experiences with us?

  • Are we upholding standards of excellence?

Is what we are doing flexible?

  • Can we easily adapt to meet diverse needs and preferences?

  • Are we responsive to feedback and willing to make changes?

Are we communicating in ways that are easy to understand?

  • Are we clear, consistent, and responsive?

  • Are we using multiple modes of communication (verbal/visual, print/email/social media/text message) to ensure stakeholders receive essential information?

  • Do we account for a range of literacy and language skills?

This is a particularly crucial framework for those with privileged identities – i.e. the more than 80% of nonprofit Executive Directors who are white – who must create space to listen to and learn from and be led by those with marginalized identities.

Universal Design is an exercise in expansive empathy.

It requires you to step outside of your familiar parameters to consider how someone else experiences your organization differently. There cannot be a narrow definition of "normal." The human experience must be celebrated in all its divergent glory.

hundreds of paint swatches of different colors fanned into a semicircle.
cliched, but lovely

*Note that I’m using "stakeholders" broadly to mean every human being who touches your organization. Internal and external. Staff, board, clients/audience/constituents, donors, followers, etc. People representing diverse backgrounds and experiences. Often, orgs are good at thinking externally, but do a terrible job at creating equitable policies for staff. More on that in a future post!

H/T to the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design "7 Principles of Universal Design."


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