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Universal Design: Design for all


Tuesday 11 June 2019

The culmination of a year and a half of research, consultation, collaboration and learning took place yesterday, June 10,  when Dr. Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, launched the Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care settings. It was a great occasion, marked by inspiring words from many. Minister Zappone spoke about the need for children to experience inclusion in high quality built environments and said that children need to see the sky daily. Takaharu Tezuka from Tokyo, an award winning architect, whose innovative work is to be seen in the Guidelines, reminded us that children with disabilities need adventure too and also spoke about the importance of relationships to good design. But the most emotional contribution came from Geraldine Delahunt of WigWams in Kildare, who movingly told the story of how she adapted her setting for Evan, a little boy with a visual impairment, who attended her setting some years ago.  Evan was to attend himself but was unable to due to a bereavement. However, the words of his mum and himself were read by Jacinta Sheerin from Early Childhood Ireland and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we heard how independent Evan had become through his experience at WigWams. Evan described the experience of walking barefoot in the grass and tacking challenges in a supported way.

In 2017, a consortium led by Early Childhood Ireland, and made up of Trinity Haus, Mary Immaculate College and Nathan Somers Design successfully tendered to develop the Guidelines, in collaboration with the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, at the National Disability Authority (CEUD/NDA).

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs sought the support of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design at the National Disability Authority to advance this work. The purpose of this publication is primarily to support the development of an inclusive culture (AIM Level 1) but will also guide settings to apply for small grants for apparatus or minor modifications to support inclusion (AIM Level 5).

Universal Design (UD) is good design. It is the design and composition of an environment so it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.

An environment (or any building, product or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering diverse needs and abilities throughout the design process, universal design creates environments that meets people's needs.

What this means is that buildings should work for everyone all the time, as much as possible. Think about toilets… in airports, many toilets are hard to fit into if you have a suitcase. In shopping centres, many toilets are difficult to use if you have a buggy! Signage is another example. Have you ever stayed in a hotel and felt confused by those endless corridors without a sign to reception?

In the ELC setting context consider the following: Do you have signage to direct parents or grandparents to the various rooms? Is it clear from the name of the room which group of children occupy that room?

A scenario: You are Marc’s Granny. You arrive to collect him (by prior arrangement) from his creche or preschool. You know Marc is 2 years old, but the signs (if there are signs) are to the Bunny Room, the Cub Room and the Daisy Room. Where is Marc?!

To guide the development of the document we were asked to carry out a literature review, conduct ten case study visits to settings, develop guidelines to support ELC settings to implement Universal Design concepts and a self-audit tool to guide this.

Dr Emer Ring, Dr Lisha O’Sullivan (both from Mary Immaculate College) and Tom Grey (Trinity Haus) carried out the extensive and comprehensive literature review, supported by Teresa Heeney and Máire Corbett from Early Childhood Ireland. Six Standards from Síolta, underpinned by Environments were used to frame the review.

Ten settings nationwide were selected for the case studies. These settings covered a range of type from urban, rural, small, medium, large, private, community, purpose built, converted, sessional and full-day-care and the selection was guided by geographical location and the Pobal Sector Profile. Pre-visit materials were developed to ensure staff, children and parents knew why we were visiting, and to enable them to give informed consent. We asked staff and parents to complete a survey in advance and we spoke to children, staff and parents on each visit. Children were given cameras to take photos of the area they liked best, so their voice could be heard. Many of these photos feature in the guidelines. In addition to the case study settings, we also visited and were sent photos from a variety of other settings to show good examples of design that is easy to access, understand and use. We also included examples of good design practice from Japan, and San Miniato in Italy. Also, a number of settings shared their Learning Stories with us. We thank all the settings who supported us in our quest.

The guidelines and self-audit tool were then developed drawing on the data from the literature review and the case study visits as well as the architectural expertise of Tom Grey and the early childhood expertise from Early Childhood Ireland. The document is in four parts: Site location, approach and design; entering and moving about the ELC setting, key internal and external spaces and elements and systems. The self-audit tool mirrors the guidelines and can be used to help you see aspects of the physical environment, indoors and outdoors that could be adapted and help you decide how this could be done. 

In the guidelines we look at access, waiting areas, layout, colour, noise, storage, signage and so much more. All settings can get ideas from the guidelines, be it a small home-based setting or a larger, purpose-built setting. Some ideas can be implemented at low cost and those planning larger projects can also get inspiration from the material. There is a design brief template which might be useful if you are planning a building project in your setting. This can help you think about what your setting needs from a built environment before you talk to your architect or builder.

But many of the ideas are simple relating to things like signage, colour, noise, reflectance and displays. Reducing visual distraction makes the environment more pleasant for everyone, including children with autism; having more neutral single colour flooring makes the environment less distracting for everyone, including people with visual problems.

Copies of the Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and care settings, the Literature Review and the Self-Audit tool will be available, in accessible format on


Máire Corbett is an Early Childhood Specialist at Early Childhood Ireland. She trained in Montessori teaching and has completed an MA in Integrated Provision for Children and Families with the University of Leicester at Pen Green.

"Visiting member settings inspires me as I see the passion and energy educators put into providing great experiences for the children in their settings. I love seeing competent children at play!"

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