The issue

The principles of universal design can be applied to improve accessibility for Deaf people.

Our position

Universal accessibility design is not “universal” if it ignores ore xcludes the special needs of Deaf persons. The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada recognizes the seven principles of universal design as set out by the Centre for Universal Design in 1997. We add the Deaf perspective to these principles, as follows:

  1. Equitable Use – The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities and does not disadvantage, segregate, or stigmatize any group of users.
    We should be able to board airplanes and trains without worrying about gate changes or delays in boarding which are announced over the PA system. We should be able to sleep in hotels secure in the knowledge that every fire alarm in the building is equipped with visual alerts. We should be able to access any kind of phone, anywhere, at any time. Amazingly, most federal government buildings are now tightly wrapped in voice-only security systems at all entrance points, both internal and external, effectively barring Deaf people from accessing public services and civil servants whose costs those same Deaf people have helped to pay through their taxes, and also effectively barring them from employment within those buildings.
  2. Flexibility In Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
    An example of flexibility in use for Deaf people is cellphones that include text messaging for those who are confident in their written language skills, and videophone capabilities for those who prefer to use visual intercommunication, as well as the standard speak/listen functions for those who can use their voices.
  3. Simple And Intuitive Use – The use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
    Many TV set-top boxes and TV sets seem to have been designed to foil any attempt to activate the captioning. The remote control may not have a dedicated button for captioning. The set may or may not have a captioning button in its front panel. The viewer may have to surf through several on-screen menus to find the captioning activator. There are often no directions about how to flip through the captioning options to turn on the decoder. The decoder may have to be manually activated every time the set is turned on. In addition, it is well-documented that the set-top boxes provided by Telus and Shaw and a few other companies override captioning controls and/or clash with TV-set captioning controls.
  4. Perceptible Information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
    This means making information available to Deaf people in a visual language, either through Signing, interpretation, pictographs, universal symbols, or basic written language. The principle applies to all information. Non-Deaf people have no right to decide what information Deaf people will be allowed to receive in accessible format; if they get the full information, then we must get it, too. Anything less is discrimination.
  5. Tolerance For Error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
    This principle applies well to environmental factors such as lighting, wallpaper designs, and wall paint colours. Poor lighting can make it impossible for Deaf people to communicate. Wallpaper patterns, curtain patterns, and paint colours constitute visual noise for Deaf people and can rapidly lead to eye strain and fatigue.
  6. Size and Space For Approach and Use – Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
    Architecturally, Deaf people need building designs that include open spaces and rounded and sloped corners, so that we can see approaching people rather than hear them. We need windows and mirrors throughout the interior of the building, since we cannot communicate by calling out to someone else in another room – we need to be able to see the other person. We also need flooring with enough “give” to enable foot-stamping that will attract our own or another Deaf person’s attention.
  7. Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with minimum fatigue.
    Non-Deaf people with some awareness of Deaf needs may believe it is enough to provide Sign interpretation for meetings and conferences, or for education and training. But staring at an interpreter non-stop for a full day is exhausting. Agendas and schedules must take this fact into consideration and be “designed” to keep presentations short, with very frequent breaks (every 45 minutes is ideal), and with opportunities to shift visual focus away from the interpreters (through the use of break-out groups, visual presentations not involving extensive spoken accompaniment, group pauses to read printed materials, etc.) Other examples of universal design features that are truly universal in that they include Deaf people are: easily-reachable buttons to turn on lights from a bed or a chair, shake-awake alarms, two-way light-switches in room entrances or bathrooms, flashing door-knockers and phone-ringers, clear visual signage and indicators, visual communication devices inside elevators and other enclosed spaces, and so on.


The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street, Ottawa, ON K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882