There is a theory in planning called universal design. The tenets of universal design are, in essence, that buildings and communities should be designed so that they are usable to the entire diversity of humans: different ages, disabilities, etc. The chief example of universal design is the wheelchair ramp on curbsides. Many people do not think twice about stepping up to a curb from a crosswalk, but for those in wheelchairs, ramps make the difference.
The key to the motivation of universal design is the theory that attempts to make design more accessible often has unintended benefits. Wheelchair ramps were designed for those bound to wheelchairs, but they are also helpful for parents with strollers, injured people on crutches and many other groups. So, by designing with diversity in mind, we can often appeal to a great variety of people, even more than just groups we set out to help. This doesn’t just apply to urban design, either; teaching, scheduling and any form of planning can all take lessons from the ideas of universal design.
So, how does this relate to UConn? Well, because of the university’s push for diversity, UConn is showing great strides in areas like universal design. For example, just recently UConn Dining Services reported on their efforts to expand options for students with allergies.
Through the report, higher-ups with dining services speak on their commitment to helping those with allergies and celiac disease. This is especially important for a university like UConn which requires its on-campus students to have dining plans. In fact, as the director and assistant director say, they feel like they have an obligation to accommodate all kinds of students. Of course, there are federal standards, but these are not enough to really make those with food allergies feel welcome and served.
This can easily be looked at as UConn dining services practicing universal design. And so, as the theory states, these efforts can and do pay dividends. By not relying on the same staples for every meal, dining halls are able to appeal more not only to those with allergies, but also students looking for choice for any number of reasons. This is a benefit for all students.
There is a reactionary trend in much of public discourse to be suspicious of diversity measures, that those decisions are made to the detriment of the majority. However, by looking at many of these changes through the lens of universal design, their benefit to all becomes more clear. Of course, this tension usually deals with more contentious roots of diversity than food choice, but the idea is the same. Bravo to UConn dining services for taking steps to consider the needs of the great diversity of students at UConn. After all, small moves like these pay dividends.