Universal design in social policy: Addressing the paradox of equality Dr Emily Steel, University of Southern Queensland

Contemporary human rights instruments have moved on from formal equality and adopted the principle of substantive equality. This approach recognises and accommodates differences, advocating for different treatment in order to achieve equality but incentivising marginalised groups to emphasise their differences in order to secure appropriate responses to their needs. Governments have often responded by producing a complex array of government programs for ‘special’ populations that overlap each other while still leaving gaps, as highlighted in the ‘Shut Out’ Report (National People with Disabilities and Carers Council, 2009). This paper will review the revision of Australia’s disability policies and their adoption of contemporary human rights and universal design principles. The adoption of universal design principles in social policy, proposed by Irving Zola (1989), has been advocated as an approach to tackle the paradox of equality (Bickenbach, 2014). Instead of designing or revising policies implementing specific rights for specific groups, policies that apply to all citizens are based on human rights. This approach to policy has failed in the past because it has been linked to the concept of normalisation and attempts to reduce or remove differences, resulting in segregation of those unable to ‘integrate’ into the mainstream (Bickenbach, 2014; Imrie, 1997). However, if aligned with the conceptual positioning of difference as part of a spectrum of diversity, and operationalised through universal design processes, it may have more success. As a philosophy that aims to enable and empower a diverse population, universal design is relevant to populations who often experience discrimination by design (e.g. older people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugees) (Steinfeld et al., 2012). When considered as a philosophy and process, universal design goes beyond technical details and becomes a way of thinking and working. Universal design objectives have been demonstrated to be analogous to social policy development that is consistent with contemporary human rights principles (Bickenbach, 2014). The challenge is to respect diversity by anticipating and responding to differences, both in the design of infrastructure (physical and virtual) and the delivery of services.