A New Universal Design in Education

Universal Means “For All”

To understand what Universal Design is and where it comes from is to realize how limited the scope it has on education, even with Design Thinking being so trendy. While the last 30 years or so has seen the transformation of our school’s physical spaces accommodate physical needs more universally, our practices as educational professionals has often gone the opposite way, looking for individual solutions for individual student’s learning needs and calling that the facilitation of a universal education. In fact, just the opposite is true by where different solutions or accommodations for different students is anything but universal. Finding solutions to student needs that fit the most students possible with a single design is the benefit of Universal Design and that kind of thinking remains on the outer edges of what we do as educators.  

“Universal Design suggests best design practices to  meet the needs of a wide range of people.”


A Quick History of Universal Design

The very brief history of Universal Design can be traced through a fight for access. In 1980’s Berkley, California, many physically impaired residents successfully fought for wheelchair curb cuts in sidewalks, access to public buildings and access to learning in universities, among other things. These sloping curb cuts from the sidewalk to the street meant that a small concrete ramp created new access for those who never had access to their own town, could now access it independently. This led to greater things, most notably the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (or the ADA) that was signed into American Federal law and by American President George H. W. Bush.  

Universal Design as a concept is soon born as these curb cuts became emblematic for the increased access of everyone, everywhere. Not only did curb cuts help the physically disabled, but others as well. Parents with strollers, the injured, small children, delivery persons all benefited from a sloping edge to a sidewalk. Overtime, these cuts have evolved to help even more, providing haptic feedback to visually impaired with ridges that can be anticipated, dimpled surfaces for more traction in weather or other causes. You see, a singular design meant to help only the most needy ends up helping most everyone. Hence, the universality of design.

The ADA and universal design’s aim to create a singular design solution that can accommodate as many different needs as possible including, permanent, temporary or situational disabilities went well beyond the curb cut. In fact, transportation, bathrooms, schools, digital design, swimming pools and more have benefitted from designing for as many users as is possible. Universal design in all American public building codes and digital coding mainly through UX.

Universal Design Can mean Universal Play, Learning, and Universal Access for All Students

Universal Design in Education Saves Time, Serves Students Better

The same set of universal design principles that serves our physically disabled students very well has yet to make its way to students with learning disabilities, where what is better for the neediest could be worked into designed educational solutions for everyone. Instead, practices of creating individualized, one-off solutions has become the norm and expected. Take the example of added space for writing as an accommodation. All aged students a with a variety of learning needs are often given more space to write on paper, yet, this is sometimes only done when mandated by an IEP or identified in some other formal way, making their learning materials different than their classmates. Even when a teacher identifies a special need, their accommodations may not reflect a general change in practice, but a short-term solution for that student and only for the time that teacher works with that particular student.

Consider writing space as an example, what if a teacher changed their practice of making tests that had previously been double-sided and on A4 or 8.5”X11” and now made tests one-sided on a A3 or (Tabloid) 17”x11” sheet of paper? It may have initially been for a particular student with special handwriting or learning needs. So instead of one solution for one student, that teacher permanently changed their practice to make all assessments for all students formatted on this new larger paper, Tabloid or A3. What could be the benefits of larger paper and more writing space to all students? I have done this very thing and found my students to be much more expressive in demonstrating mastery. I’ve also found that my students check their work more fully and are able to connect ideas together more often as all test elements are organized spatially to form a map of their thinking. Initially, I changed to a larger format paper to accommodate a needy student only to have my practice permanently changed to benefit more students, in more ways than I could have predicted.  

Results changed with the new A3 paper tests, the form of student work changed and students self-reported liking the format much more. An entire assessment fills only one side of the A3 paper I now use and students have said things like, “I can see my thinking like its a map on this paper” or, “My eyes scan back and forth and I connect ideas and go back to questions and fix mistakes more than ever.”

This is The Future of Teaching, Universality = Access

Universal design in architecture may have been an inevitable progression as mobility changed in the modern world to include wheelchairs, delivery dollies, strollers, crutches and so on. Imagine the alternative to universal design for physical needs and needing to design a different bathroom for each different identifiable disability. Or imagine designing and maintaining multiple apps, each for a particular special need rather than one universal app that accommodates as many different users as possible. Both of these examples sound very wasteful and not economically viable. Yet, we as educators regularly spend a significant amount of time accommodating individual students and their special learning needs while also fulfilling the “normal” program. Sadly many well-meaning teachers avoid doing accommodation work, feeling overloaded, unsupported or under trained. Should educators take on the design process and design thinking needed to make solutions more singular and more universal, their work could become more efficient and reach more of their students.

There is no doubt that there are many teacher success stories who are able to include more students with a singular design, but they aren’t typically celebrated as an effort to design universally for students or to celebrate efficient practice. Nor is this story the norm. Why hasn’t Universal Design for physical disabilities reached student learning disabilities in that we can accommodate their needs with a goal to design for all? It seems to be a logical turn away from individualized learning solutions as it may prove to be more efficient, reliable and longer lasting than the efforts of individual teachers to make that individualization happen.

Let’s move the ball forward and call Universal Design by name in our schools and let’s use it to be better teachers and be more efficient. Universal design in our teaching is more efficient and increases access of learning to all.

Universal design in our teaching is more efficient and increases access of learning to all.


4 thoughts on “A New Universal Design in Education

  1. Hey Jim,

    In the genre of supports for some students built into the instructional tools for all students, you might be interested in this description of supports from the New Visions mathematics curriculum. These aren’t intended to be done for just the students who might need the supports, they are intended to be used within all instruction to provided on-ramps for students into the mathematics for both the students who are known to need them and students who may need the support but this isn’t known.

    One of my favourite element of these is that they don’t name specific students who need support to other students.



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