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Beyond Ramps: Universal Design Enhances Learning for All Students

For years universal design has been incorporated in architecture and product design to make things more usable by more people. Today, those concepts are being applied in education for the same reason – to make learning more accessible to more students.

While often equated with accommodating people with disabilities, universal design applies to everyone. Steven Christopher, ACC director of special populations, explains what universal design is, what it’s not, and how faculty and staff can apply universal design concepts to support student success.

What is universal design and how does it relate to the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Steve Christopher is ACC's director of special populations.

Christopher: They’re not synonymous. ADA is a legal framework to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and provides the rationale for classroom accommodations. Universal design provides a framework that optimizes access to programs, services, and physical facilities for all users. Universal design does benefit people with disabilities, but it benefits everyone by using clear, simple, intuitive design.

The more we effectively incorporate universal design in our programs, services, and architectural principles, the less need there will be for accommodations. Think of accommodations as retrofitting. If an instructor is showing a video that is not closed-captioned, we have to provide an accommodation — in this case, an interpreter. However, if you have made sure the video is closed-captioned beforehand, no accommodation is needed because everyone, including deaf students, can access it.

What components of classroom teaching does universal design encompass?

Christopher: The short answer is it encompasses all aspects of instructional delivery, including online instruction.

The architectural features are the easiest to wrap your head around. In our world – postsecondary educational institutions – the rubber really hits the road in architecture, the furniture, and physical features, and most importantly, the instructional delivery design. That’s really the key piece. Universal design provides a framework for designing and delivering instructional content that is accessible and usable, without lowering academic standards.

Imagine yourself as a student. Would you like to be in a class where the instructor delivers the information one way? Most people would say, ‘I like a variety.’ There are a lot of different ways you can deliver your course content beyond a simple lecture. Instructors who deliver content in a variety of ways already are applying universal design principles.

Each discipline will have its own challenges in applying the principles. In all situations it requires careful planning, thinking ahead and asking: ‘How can I make what I have accessible to the most users?’ An example would be an instructor who uses a video with closed-captioning. Many people who hear perfectly fine benefit from hearing it and reading the captions at the same time. You’re providing multiple pathways into memory, which is beneficial to learning.

Are colleges and universities required to incorporate universal design?

Christopher: No. However, they need to meet ADA accessibility standards, some of which are relatively technical — especially regarding access to online information — and legally binding. ACC has an administrative rule (1.01.002) that incorporates the seven principles of universal design created by North Carolina State’s Center for Universal Design. The rule is based on the college’s mission to serve a diverse student population, and requires that we provide an environment where students have equal and effective access to all programs, services, and facilities. By incorporating these principles we can improve instruction and ultimately improve student engagement and performance – that’s the bottom line.

What resources are available to faculty wanting to ensure their curriculum and lessons are accessible?

Christopher: There is a link on the OSD (Office for Students with Disabilities) page with faculty resources and a section about students with disabilities. There are numerous resources available online. Faculty can do an online search using the terms ‘universal design for instruction’ or ‘universal design for learning.’ I am also happy to consult with faculty directly.

What if an instructor has a question about a student’s academic accommodation?

The instructor should contact the specific OSD office listed on the student’s “Notice of Approved Accommodations.” The OSD has a webpage that lists the contacts for each campus.

To view ACC’s Library Services subject guide about accessibility, click here. Christopher regularly presents workshops for faculty and staff that include universal design concepts. He will present a workshop, “Eight Proven Strategies to Help Students with Learning Differences Succeed,” from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday, March 30, at Highland Business Center. He can be contacted at schris@austincc.edu.

Tips for Incorporating Universal Design in Instruction

  • Use delivery methods that recognize a range of abilities, backgrounds, and previous experiences. Don’t rely solely on lecture; incorporate, discussion, hands-on activities, case studies, and projects.
  • Use a consistent, intuitive format for all print and electronic materials. Print materials should be available in electronic format; webpages should include text descriptions of graphics. Presentation materials should be legible with sufficient spacing. Videos should be closed-captioned.
  • Promote different types of interaction with your students – not just face-to-face, in-class discussion, but also online interaction.
  • Offer frequent and flexible options for students to demonstrate knowledge – not only tests, but also group work, portfolios, and presentations. Make sure feedback is uniform and frequent.
  • Ensure that classroom, labs, and fieldwork are accessible for a range of physical abilities. Minimize the need for unnecessary physical travel by making materials available online or allowing work to be submitted electronically.

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