Universal design is the design of products or services that are usable and effective for all people (with or without disabilities) to the greatest extent possible. Universal design allows everyone to participate in activities and to share the same resources. If our world were universally designed, individual accommodations would be unnecessary. People would no longer have to adapt to the environment because the environment would have been built to adapt to them.
Consider a universal design classic. In the early nineties, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated that whenever new sidewalks were built, they should have curbed ramps at each intersection. This was a way of anticipating the problems that some people with disabilities have when they reach a sidewalk curb. People who used wheelchairs or had difficulty seeing were grateful for the smooth transition from sidewalk to street.
But so were the rest us! Curbed ramps are also helpful for people riding bicycles and skateboarding, people rolling suitcases, pushing strollers and grocery carts, or those of us who simply don't pay attention to where we're walking (not to mention short-legged dogs, toddling children, and...you get the picture).
A similar phenomenon occurred when some airports, restaurants, and other noisy locations started captioning their televisions. People with impaired hearing could now access the information on the screen, but the rest of us benefitted as well. Universal design is a way to make the world more accessible to everyone.
As a university professor, think about how you might create a classroom, or a curriculum, based on the principles of universal design. If your tests are timed, do they measure what the students know or how quickly they can process information and answer questions? If you're assessing speed, a timed test is a great idea. If not, which students are you excluding or disadvantaging by creating a time pressure? Is there a way you could allow students to complete the test at their own pace? Would this qualify as universal design?
As you are preparing your courses, think about how you can make the learning experience more accessible to all. What might you do to provide better access to students with the following barriers?
- Visual: the student can't see clearly or at all; experiences visual/perceptual distortions
- Auditory: the student can't hear well or at all
- Mobility: the student can't move well or at all, or movement is painful
- Oral communication for the student is difficult or impossible
- Reading/writing/math skills: the student experiences difficulty acquiring and using reading, spelling, writing, or math skills; completes these tasks slowly, inefficiently, or with many errors
- Comprehension: the student has difficulty processing information, taking good notes
- Concentration: the student has problems concentrating, focusing, is easily distracted; has frequent memory or attention lapses
- Problem solving/abstract reasoning skills are difficult for the student
- The student experiences fatigue or a lack of physical or mental stamina
- The student has difficulty with time management, task completion, organization, lateness, or meeting deadlines
- The student often becomes dizzy or disoriented
- Social/cultural: the student is not a native English speaker; is unfamiliar with U.S. academic norms, values, and expectations
- Psychological: the student has a history of abuse or other experiences which result in traumatic reactions to classroom confrontations or discussions, or emotional subject matter