A New Universal Design in Education

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 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. The benefit of Universal Design remains on the outer edges of what we do as educators.  

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.

This 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.

Using writing space as a consideration, 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 needs but instead that teacher permanently changed their practice to make all assessments for all students formatted on large paper. 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.  

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. Sadly many well meaning teachers avoid doing that 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.

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