Elaine Phillips Ostroff was born on February 27, 1933 and grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. She graduated from Durfee High School (1951), received a B.S. from Brandeis University (1955), was awarded a Radcilffe Fellowship (1970) and an Ed.M from Harvard University (1972). In 1978, Ostroff co-founded with Cora Beth Abel the Adaptive Environments Center (now the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD)) to confront the barriers which prevent persons with disabilities and older people from fully participating in community life. In 1989, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, she developed the national Universal Design Education Project (UDEP) at Adaptive Environments. A national project, UDEP sought to incorporate universal design in professional curricula. Ostroff coined the term "user/expert" in 1995 to identify individuals whose personal experiences give them unique critical capacity to evaluate environments.
As an educator, Ostroff has been involved with the accessible environments effort on a national and international level since 1971. She was the former director of training for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health where she developed graduate programs and courses to sustain community based living for people with disabilities. In 1977, she was the United States representative to the United Nations meeting on the Rights of Children.
She convened the national seminar on Design for All People that provided the framework for the UDEP in 1982. In 1986, she developed the "Best of Accessible Boston," an awards program honoring the architects and owners of buildings that exemplified good as well as accessible design. Ostroff is internationally renowned for her role on the team that created the Principles of Universal Design. The Principles are taught to designers including architects, landscape architects, interior and product designers and their students and used in design, constructions and product development. In 2001, she was the senior editor of the “Universal Design Handbook” used as a textbook in educational settings. In 2004, she was the first American, and first woman, to receive the Misha Black medal from the Royal College of Art. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects awarded her the Honorary AIA designation. Ostroff's experience emphasized creating educational programs for non-designers, facilitating their design advocacy as well as collaboration with design professionals. She has written and produced technical assistance materials on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that were used in the National Network for ADA Technical Assistance. She married Earl Carlton Ostroff (1931-2006) in 1953. The couple had three children, Rebecca, Joshua, and Sam.
The Universal Design Movement is an international effort advocating design for disabled persons to enjoy access, independence, and convenience. It also is known as design-for-all, accessible design, inclusive design, and human-centered design. It is applied to buildings, consumer products, packaging, appliances, tools, and devices. It can aid persons with mobility, visual, hearing, cognitive, developmental, neurological, and other disabilities.
The Universal Design movement has its roots in the disability rights movement, in the post-World War II era. Previously and especially before the First World War people with disabilities were members of a small minority and persons with severe handicaps tended to have short lifespans. The world wars caused a huge influx of disabled veterans into the population. Advances in medicine and drugs and better sanitation enabled increased lifespans resulting in a higher population of older and disabled people. Awareness of the problems and limitations experienced by people with disabilities has increased.
The “Barrier-Free” movement in the 1950s was born of the demands by veterans and their advocates to participate equally in educational and employment opportunities enjoyed by the non-disabled population. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s influenced the rising Disability Rights Movement. Legislative changes in the 1960s and 1970s prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities and mandated access to some, though not all, public spaces, public transit, and places of public accommodation.
The progression from the Barrier-Free movement to the Universal Design movement was aided by several pieces of national legislation and activism on the part of numerous organizations. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required buildings designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds to be made accessible. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first civil rights law for disabled people. It prohibited discrimination against people with handicapping conditions, but again, only applied to institutions or groups receiving federal funding. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 required educational institutions to provide a free education to handicapped children. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 expanded the requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to include disabled people. This applied to both public and private properties. The biggest change came in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This broad and sweeping legislation raised public consciousness about disability rights as a civil rights issue. It prohibited discrimination in employment, access to public accommodations, services, programs, public transit, and telecommunications. The law mandated the removal of physical barriers and the development of non-discriminatory policies.
The Universal Design Movement sought to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream, and to promote inclusion by reducing the physical and social barriers that exist between people with disabilities. As planners, builders and architects struggled to meet the demands of the ADA, they realized that segregated accommodations were costly, unattractive, and unfair. They also realized that improvements in the built environment not only that benefitted people with disabilities, they benefitted all users. According to the Center for Universal Design, “Recognition that many such features could be commonly provided and thus less expensive, unlabeled, attractive, and highly marketable, laid the foundation for the universal design movement.”
Against this background, Ostroff’s own special interest was improving the environment for people with developmental disabilities. She initially worked with teachers in the Department of Mental Retardation (State of Massachusetts) to help them transform their classrooms into more engaging and supportive environments for young children with disabilities. She was inspired by Gunnar Dybwad (1909-2001), a prominent international international advocate who fought for community living and the de-institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities and Raymond Lifchez (1932-), professor of architecture and city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. She also worked closely with, and learned from, Ron Mace (1941-1998), FAIA, the architect who powered the accessibility movement through his personal experience of disability along with his architectural training and experience.