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Universal Design – Making Resources, Information, and Learning Accessible

Effective Living

20090913su-universal-design-and-accessibilitySummary. This document provides information and resources about Universal Design to expand understanding and broaden the use of Universal Design methods.

Narrow ViewsUniversal Design is most narrowly and commonly understood as a response to the legal regulations addressing disability discrimination that require federal and state institutions to make services and resources equally available and accessible to all people regardless of disability. For example, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ramps and automatic doors are installed to accommodate people in wheel chairs. American Sign Language interpreters are often at events to accommodate those who are deaf. These are the most visible examples of accommodating those with disabilities. According to the University of Iowa Disability Awareness statement, the ADA “guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in employment, education, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.” The universal symbol for wheel chair accessible (seen here) has come to be recognized as a symbol more broadly meaning “handicapped” or today the term “disabled” is used instead.

Disabled or Differently Abled. The common view regarding accessibility is generally summarized as follows: “We must accommodate the minority of people who are disabled, such as blind people, deaf people, and people in wheel chairs, because we’re required to by law and it’s probably a nice thing to do.” The University of Iowa statement on Disability Awareness advises that we “use the word disability rather than handicap.” In the 1980s, the US Democratic National Committee instituted the term “differently abled” rather than disabled (source) and the term continues to be used and revived by politicians such as Dennis Kucinich (references). The term “differently abled” is not just a friendlier term, but much a more accurate description. The term disabled implies, somewhat broadly, that a person isn’t “able.” In fact, many people who have what seems to be a limitation in one area of life have adapted greater ability in another area of life to compensate (such as a blind person who may have exceptionally sensitive hearing).

  • Action Point. Consider using the term differently abled rather than disabled to affirm that people aren’t lacking in ability, but instead each person has a unique set of abilities.

Broad Benefits of a Universal Design Society. The benefits of Universal Design typically serve all people and not just those people who are being assisted. For example, an airport of building may have stairs, escalators, elevators, short-distance tram, ramps, electric ride-on carts, and moving walkways. One person may choose to take stairs and walk for additional exercise, another may feel tired or in a hurry and choose to take the power assisted options. A person in a wheel chair could also move about freely without obstacles. The airport wasn’t designed solely to accommodate a person in a wheel chair and comply with ADA laws. The airport was designed in a way that offers a multiplicity of mobility options for everyone. A broader and more enlightened view and application of Universal Design methods considers how to best serve all people involved from a holistic standpoint by looking for holistic solutions that help all people. In a Universal Design Society, all people might be encouraged to learn American Sign Language for the benefit of those who are deaf, and also because of the many practical everyday uses of sign language. Some people with learning disabilities aren’t diagnosed as such. For this reason, Universal Design attempts to provide broad accessibility to all people, as if everyone had the same disability. Consider that a diet for diabetics could be offered to all people. Those without diabetes would benefit as well as those with diabetes. Vegetarian food is suitable for vegetarians as well as meat eaters. These are just a few examples where accommodating a minority, doesn’t have a negative impact on the majority.

Universal Design for Learning. The present-day pioneers of Universal Design in Learning are examining how to increase effectiveness of information delivery in the academic environment. Making a classroom physically accessible to all may be all that is required to comply with ADA laws, but it doesn’t guarantee that the information is delivered in a way that it is understood and retained by all. Educators recognize that people have different learning styles, and some people are diagnosed with learning disabilities which are more severe than a simple difference in learning style. For this reason, educators look for ways to adapt to the unique needs and differences of students.

  • What Testing Reveals. When an exam is given to a classroom of students, the various grades those students receive represents a broad spectrum analysis of the instructor’s ability to deliver the information in a way that it could be effectively grasped by all the students. If the students who learn visually all perform poorly on the exam, then apparently the instructor didn’t use enough visual teaching methods. If the students who learn through reading didn’t do well on the exam, then perhaps the instructor needs to offer more reading materials. Tests and exams are a reflection of a teacher’s abilities as well as the students’ abilities.
  • Making Accommodations. A common accommodation for a student with a learning disability might be to allow that student to take additional time to complete an exam. The student would be singled out, and given extra time usually by taking the test on a different day in a different location. But what about the students who aren’t diagnosed as having a learning disability or are too self conscious to request special treatment? What about the other students in the class who don’t have a learning disability, yet might have appreciated having extra time for the test? In most institutions, schedules and facilities are limited. Tests are administered in the time-slots that a classroom is available and not always based on the amount of time realistically needed to complete the exam. Instead, it would be better to give the exam over two or three days if needed. This would allow those who need extra time to have it. Instead of singling out one student for special treatment, everyone would be treated the same.

Analogies for Understanding Universal Design. Consider the following examples as they apply to the principles of Universal Design.

  • Advertising. It’s common in advertising and marketing to have an advertising campaign that reaches people through various channels such as billboards, television, radio, and magazine ads. Any single distribution method would not reach as many people. The same principle is true in education, the delivery of knowledge, ideas, and skills must be done through various methods to reach all people.
  • Nutritional Supplement Absorption. When considering the effectiveness of nutritional supplements, it’s common to consider how absorbable the supplements are. A certain pill may have 100% of the USDA for a nutrient, however, the body may only absorb 20% from that vitamin for a variety of reasons. The goal is to ensure that the body completely absorbs 100% of the USDA regardless of how much needs to be ingested. The same is true in an educational environment. It’s essential for the information to be delivered in a way that makes it absorbable for all.
  • Relief Agency. A relief agency needs to deliver food to people in a region. Some live on the water, some live in the mountains, some live in the valleys. The relief agency needs to develop a unique strategy to reach each people group. One group may have utensils, another may not. One group may have access to clean water, another may not. A holistic approach needs to be taken that will make all the food deliverable to all of the people. The same is true in education. Each learner is in a different place, and it’s the responsibility of the educator, and the educational institution, to work through the barriers that exist to delivering ideas and education.
  • Store Clerk. When purchasing products at a store, it is common for a store clerk to use a ladder to reach an item that is too high for a customer to reach. It’s the salesperson’s responsibility to remind the customer of additional accessories, such as batteries or cables, that might be needed to get the product to work. Many people have had the frustrating experience of purchasing a printer and then finding out there was no cord inside to connect it to a computer. Educators are like store clerks who are selling the product of knowledge to students who are like customers paying for that product. While the students have a responsibility to study, there is a great deal of responsibility on the educator to do all they can do to make the product (education) useable to the customer (the student).

Too Much of a Good Thing. Ideally, according to the most generous approach to Universal Design in Learning, each student would have their own unique needs and challenges addressed. For example, a student needing more time to take a test, would be given more time to take a test. Another student with a short attention span and poor note taking skills would be given a professional note taker to take notes for them. A student with anxiety about speaking before a group would not be required to give their presentation to the class. There is a concern, however, about the readiness and preparedness of these students to function in the “real world” where employers may not be as understanding about an employee not being able to meet a deadline, not being able to take notes during a meeting, and being too anxious to present at a staff meeting. Are we doing students a favor by offering so many accommodations, or are we limiting their growth and preparedness? Is it the educational institution’s responsibility to be a “loving understanding and comforting parent” for the student? Or, instead, is it the responsibility of the educational institution to challenge each student to grow in preparation for independence in the world outside of academia.

Examples. Below are some examples of Universal Design methods.

  • Multi-Platform. If software is required for a course, be sure that the software can be run on multiple platforms (Apple, Linux, and Windows). Web based applications and tools are best because the Internet is generally multi-platform friendly.
  • Open Source. Use primarily course materials that are open source and available in the creative commons rather than commercial corporate copyrighted materials that are sold primarily by profit driven publishers. In this way, the materials are accessible to those who are “disabled” financially and unable to pay hundreds of dollars for books. The Apple iTunes Store features iTunesU and Open University, which are examples of courseware that’s openly available to the public for free.
  • Polls and Surveys. Using services such as PollEverywhere.com can help educators or presenters learn more about the people they are communicating with. In this way, the presentation or material can be adapted to fit the needs and interests of the audience.
  • Student Assessment. We shouldn’t require that a student be diagnosed as having a learning disability, then require that that student fill out paperwork, then have that student make a special request, before their needs are considered. Rather than waiting for students with disabilities to approach you, have a simple anonymous PowerPoint presentation survey that tests your class for things like color blindness, learning style, and learning disabilities. Make accommodations for the entire class even if a single (unknown) student is color blind or has a specific learning disability.
  • Website Design. Design all information and course materials to be universally accessible in text, audio, and video formats via the web. Web pages should be designed to be easily read by screen readers (for the blind) and allow fonts to be resized so the page can be easily read by someone with a visual impairment.

Resources. Here are some resources for additional information.

  • Cast.org –  “CAST is a nonprofit research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through Universal Design for Learning.” [CAST Universal Design Information]
  • Center for Universal Design – “The Center for Universal Design (CUD) is a national information, technical assistance, and research center that evaluates, develops, and promotes accessible and universal design in housing, commercial and public facilities, outdoor environments, and products.  Our mission is to improve environments and products through design innovation, research, education and design assistance.”
  • University of Iowa Student Disability Services
  • Wikipedia Page on Universal Design

Video. Below are some video commentaries by Gregory Johnson on the topic of Universal Design.



By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com