Universal Design - A New Paradigm for Teaching Students With Disabilities

Imagine a learning environment where everyone has equal access to educational opportunities. A concept so novel that it was developed far outside the educational box. This approach, which is changing the face of educating students with disabilities was developed by architects, and is called Universal Design (UD).

Though relatively new, UD is already being implemented at University campuses on the mainland. And plans are currently underway to follow suit at UH Hilo, where the Disability Services Office says faculty training sessions will be conducted in the near future.

The objective of UD is to apply a specific set of principles to systematically incorporate accessible features into a design rather than retrofitting changes or accommodations (Shaw, 2002). The application of UD on instruction creates an environment that anticipates the needs of diverse students to make learning more accessible.

Drs. Scott, McGuire and Foley of the Center on Post-secondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, have studied this concept, and produced a list of principles by which UD can be applied towards instruction. The nine principles are:

  1. Equitable Use - providing equal use for all students
  2. Flexibility in Use - choice in methods
  3. Simple and Intuitive - eliminate complexity
  4. Perceptible Information - effective communication of information, regardless of ambient conditions or the student's sensory abilities
  5. Tolerance for Error - anticipating variation of individual learning pace and prerequisite skills
  6. Low Physical Effort - minimizing nonessential physical effort to allow for maximum attention (unless physical effort is an integral part of the course);
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use - designing space to accommodate students, regardless of body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs
  8. A Community of Learners - promotion of interaction and communication between/among students, colleagues and faculty
  9. Instructional Climate - instruction designed to be welcoming and inclusive where high expectations are espoused for all students (Scott, McGuire, & Foley, in press)

In another publication, Universal Design for Instruction: An exploration of principles for anticipating and responding to student diversity in the classroom , the authors cite application examples for each of the nine principles that include using

web-based courseware products with links to on-line resources, providing instructional support in digital format, and fostering collegial communication in and out of class by structuring study and discussion groups, chat rooms, etc. (Scott, McGuire, & Foley, 2001).

Strategies that have produced results among students with/without disabilities in higher education settings, indicate that most successful students use a variety of learning strategies (Garner, 1987) and apply specific techniques as needed. Specifically, students with learning disabilities tend to use metacognitive monitoring and evaluation to determine effectiveness of their learning and to modify their behaviors to maximize on their learning experience (Allgood, Risko, Alvarez, & Fairbanks, 2000). This stratagem is one that perhaps could be applied by students without disabilities.

A recent paper presented to the American Educational Research Association by Dr. Ruzie from Harvard University stated specific strategies that integrate learning in various school environments are also applicable to future work environments. These included taking personal responsibility, making assessments and matching work to these assessments, modifying strategies, seeking mentors, and developing supporting peer groups) (Ruzie, 2001).

Ruzie's study (2001) went on to provide the following recommendations to institutions for enhanced student success:

  1. provide integrated residential housing environment where freshmen students could benefit from academically experienced students
  2. break large classes into smaller sections for enhanced access to professors
  3. clarify assessment criteria so that students clearly understand what is expected of them
  4. provide feedback on students' work/performance so they can modify their strategies for learning
  5. provide opportunities for practice before actual grading occurs
  6. spread out assignments to allow students to solicit feedback and modify practices before finals

The day has dawned on a new instructional paradigm with Universal Design leading this modernized approach. For more information on Universal Design go to the CAST, Inc. website or contact Disability Services.