Defining Accessibility

One definition of accessibility  is “an umbrella term for all aspects which influence a person’s ability to function within an environment.1 Put another way, accessibility is a measure of how simply a person can participate in an activity.

Many people move through the world without considering the barriers that might stop others from moving in the same fashion. But, think, for example, how a two-inch step can make the difference between being able to participate and being unable to do so. The ways we design and build determine how inclusive we’re able to be of all members of our communities.

Accessibility takes many forms in many places.  Physical environments, such as dwellings, offices and other buildings, elevators, ramps and sidewalks are an obvious category. Transportation is another category - an example of improved accessibility here is wheelchair-friendly buses. Web and digital environments fall into another grouping, in which enlarged fonts and speak-to-text features can be used to improve accessibility.  

Universal Design

Universal design is a way of designing for use by anyone, regardless of ability. While most forms of accessibility typically provide ways for most individuals to function in an environment, they often create separation between people who need accessibility features and those who do not. Universal design removes this separation and provides an environment that all people can use freely and without barriers.2

Why Accessibility Is Important

Accessibility continues to become more and more relevant to all of us. There are several reasons for this. We are living longer. We have a growing population that needs accessibility. And, we use assistive devices without even thinking about it. For example, using handrails when going up and down stairs, holding on to a bar when taking transit, or using an automatic door opener when trying to carry multiple items through a door.

In addition, modifications that were originally designed for persons with disabilities have become commonplace and have yielded benefits for everyone.  For example, curb cuts are useful for anyone navigating objects that have wheels, including strollers, skateboards and bicycles. 

Focus of Accessible U

Accessible U is focused primarily on accessibility for people with physical mobility barriers. These barriers can result from chronic health conditions, acquired disabilities or congenital disabilities. They also can be related to age or be short-term, such as while healing after an injury or while recovering from surgery.  


Iwarsson, S., & Ståhl, A. (2003). Accessibility, usability and universal design—positioning and definition of concepts describing person-environment relationships. Disability and Rehabilitation, 25(2), 57-66.