Michele Mashburn
5 min readJul 31, 2020


Letter to support Universal Design in San Jose City Council Priority Setting Session — February 2020

This letter was submitted to the City of San Jose to support a proposed policy nominated to be adopted during the City Council’s 2020–2021 Council priority setting session. Sadly, the policy did not get approved, but it did receive 4 votes in support.

February 19, 2020

San Jose Mayor and City Council Members
200 E. Santa Clara St.
San José, CA 95113

RE: Universal Design Guidelines and Standards

Dear Mayor and City Council Members of San Jose:

This letter is to support the policy proposal nominated by Raul Peralez to develop Universal Design guidelines and standards during the City Council’s 2020–2021 Council priority setting session.

Urban environments, infrastructures, facilities and services can inherently exclude and alienate members of society. Accessibility limitations contribute to the disadvantages and marginalization faced by persons with disabilities that may lead to higher rates of poverty, deprivation, and exclusion. Even with the presence of the American Disabilities Act (1990) and current state laws, buildings are being constructed without equitable access for all people. This impacts not only persons with chronic disabilities but also people recovering from an accident or injury, those with small children, the elderly, and more. We need to take it a step further and prioritize inclusion. Choices made in the process of planning can be the difference between a welcoming environment and a closed door.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for actions to ensure accessibility, following the Universal Design approach by removing existing barriers in society to support the fullest potential of all citizens. Universal Design was defined by the Ireland Disability Act 2005 as a way to design an environment so that it may be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability without need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialized solutions.

The segregation of persons with disabilities is normalized in our society. A wheelchair user is lucky if there is room for their chair on a public bus, and is surprised if there is space for more than one. Policy hearings and governmental proceedings require up to 48 hours advance notice of any accommodation needs in order to access a meeting, and withhold the right to deny access with any less notice. Many medical facilities fail to have accessible offices and specialized equipment for all people. Persons with disabilities intending to attend a banquet need to coordinate in advance to ensure they are provided a space, and far more often than not that space is in the periphery of the room.

Periphery is a theme embedded in the very historical structure of our society. A disabled person is to be seen in controlled settings, and not in public spaces. They become a burden.

This burden is not determined by the presence of a person with a disability, but rather the belief that they are separate and different. Whether it is a poorly maintained separate ramp, or a door which is the accessible point marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” the message is clear: to be able bodied provides access to choices that a disabled person may not have.

Whenever we split rights into privileges, we start to degrade the relationships between people who may not yet be able to distinguish the difference. People with alternative needs are forced to work harder to achieve in a structure that may be against them from the start. Even those without disabilities are labeled as “less than” if they have a different need. Rather than embracing and integrating people’s differences, our society sees them as a failure of some sort.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 acts as a barrier on its own. The concern is not whether a space may exclude members of society, but rather the consequences incurred of not providing accessibility; “Oh no, the disabled person in the room is going to sue us because we are not in compliance.” Another example is about access on university and school campuses. Schools claim to take credit for compliance with ADA codes, and yet there are some older buildings still in place with signs displaying the International Symbol of Access that state, “Building Inaccessible, For Assistance Call…” Internalized ableism teaches us to accept this reality because it is an older building. Even disabled people are programmed to accept these limitations to universal access in society.

Accommodations are important in a society that is nowhere near universally accessible, but they do not create an equal environment. An adaptive device allows one to integrate into the mainstream throng of society, but temporary adaptations and auxiliary aids are still seen as more work. Universal Design would place disability justice in front of public and political actions rather than leaving it as an afterthought only to be addressed when a disabled person expresses a concern or files a complaint.

When elements of Universal Design are present, programs and planning are inclusive and more equitable than those that are ADA compliant. Having a disability does not limit anyone as long as the societal structure is set up to enable all people.

The World Report on Disability (2011), highlights the role of the environment in helping or limiting people with disabilities. Barriers that exist include inadequate policies and standards, negative attitudes, lack of services, problems with service delivery, inadequate funding, lack of accessibility, and the lack of consultation and involvement. These barriers contribute to other societal disadvantages experienced by people with disabilities (e.g., poor health outcomes, lower educational achievements, less economic participation, higher rates of poverty and unemployment, increased dependency and restricted participation). In turn, our whole society is negatively impacted.

Improving accessibility increases social capital, improves health, builds independence, increases social inclusion, improves quality of life, builds resilience, saves energy, cuts costs, creates less pollution, and increases safety and mobility (Inclusion Imperative).

From disabled activists in Williamsport, Pennsylvania who are fighting for accessible City Government meetings to ADAPT members in Washington DC who continue to fight for basic human rights in the areas of employment, transportation, healthcare, physical accessibility, and telecommunications, Universal Design is about more than just inclusion of people with disabilities. It is about equity for all people.

As we live in tech-forward Silicon Valley, we should stay on the cutting edge of accessibility for all people and embrace Universal Design. It will help put our city in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Universal Design is viewed as sustainable and will ensure that no one is left behind in planning and programming activities.

As Michael Oliver writes in Understanding Disability, “it is not disabled people who need to be examined but able-bodied society; it is not a case of educating disabled and able-bodied people for integration, but of fighting institutional disablism; it is not disability relations which should be the field for study but disablism.” (p. 142).

Michele M. Mashburn
San Jose Peace and Justice Center



Michele Mashburn

Disability Advocate, Educator, & Activist * Cat Lover * Opinions are mine