Universal design has its roots in the disability rights movement of the post-World War II era. At that time, the number of Americans with disabilities increased due both to the influx of veterans and to medical advances enabling longer lifespans. The “barrier-free” movement of the 1950s arose from veterans’ demands to participate fully in the same educational and employment opportunities as people without disabilities. Over the next decades, activists raised public awareness about disability rights, leading to incremental legal and legislative changes and culminating in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
New legal standards and regulations meant the need to design barrier-free environments for people with disabilities. Proponents of universal design extended the idea to design environments that benefit everyone. A pioneer of this movement was Massachusetts educator Elaine Ostroff (1933-) who has advocated on behalf of people with disabilities throughout her career. Her work has improved the lives of people with disabilities—especially children—and the general population as well.