Universal social design is the application of universal design principles to social environments. A person with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair, cannot be expected to change into someone who can use steps to enter a building. Rather, the physical environment changes such that wheelchair use no longer causes someone to be excluded from a physical environment. One may raise questions about semiotics relative to the characteristics or location of a ramp, however, the physical environment changes in the face of someone who does not have the ability to change.
People have similar problems accessing social environments because of manner in which they have been “constructed.” Every culture has developed social skill standards for basic interactions between people. These relate to speaking, greetings, showing respect, and interactions between people of different ages, genders or other characteristics determined to be relevant by that culture. However in every culture, there are people who either cannot understand the social skill demands of that culture or do not have the ability to perform in completely, socially competent ways. Like the person in the wheelchair described who is unable to access some physical environments, these individuals cannot access or have been excluded from social environments. The social environment in a like manner to the physical environment needs to change if these individuals are to be included.
The types of changes might be labeled “social ramps” in that they are circumscribed efforts to change social environments such that those with social skill deficits can access those environments. We have done some preliminary thinking about the notions of universal social design and the idea of social ramps, but there is much more room for study in order to more completely understand these notions and how they might be developed.
One of the first articles discussing both social ramps and universal social design was published in the Spring issue of the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID) by McNair & McKinney. That article will be available shortly on this website