Universal Design for Learning
By Susan Shapiro
Educational Settings and the ADA
When I was nine years old, my mother introduced me to the Killilea family who lived in a large, old house with Newfoundland dogs, just like our family. Mr. Killilea and my grandfather were dear, old friends. Their daughter, Karen, was the first person I’d met who used a wheelchair. The Killilea house was full of antiques and books and things that smelled old. I loved being there, and I remember noticing they had an electric chair lift. It was the first time I witnessed the relationship between user experience and design. Specifically, Karen needed a way to get to the second floor so the Killileas added an option: a moving chair.
After college, I found myself employed as a special education teacher in a small, rural elementary school in New Hampshire. I had five students in my self-contained classroom, each with a label of disability. Our room was located in what used to be the town’s one-room schoolhouse. To this day, I remember our anxiety going down the icy steps and navigating the snowy parking lot with my students – especially Max, who had cerebral palsy and was learning to walk that year. The stress and anxiety my students and I experienced was not the result of their having disabilities; it was the result of a bad design.
“Universal design” is a reminder to building designers that a variety of people are going to be using all sorts of structures, so it’s important to design them to be accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses the issues of barrier-free design as it focuses on disability, and accommodating people with disabilities, in the physical environment.
The ADA ensures that school buildings are made accessible, but physical access alone does not guarantee learning. Are learners with disabilities also able to access the curriculum? In 1990, CAST (the Center for Applied Special Technology), a non-profit organization based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, introduced Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which takes the architectural concept of universal design and applies it to educational settings. UDL is a reminder to learning designers that it is important to create learning environments that are accessible for everyone. If UDL could talk, it might say this: “Think about barriers that learners might face in the learning environment and remove them before the learners get there. Make learning accessible from the start!”
One of the core concepts of UDL is that barriers are in the environment, not the learner. It’s a mindset shift. UDL posits that it is the responsibility of learning designers to think ahead of time about barriers in the curriculum and figure out ways to remove them. For example, an educator showing a film that offers the viewer only one way to make meaning (i.e., listen to the spoken language) poses a barrier to comprehension for some learners. To remove this barrier, closed captions need to be added to the film so that there are two ways for viewers to perceive the content. Thus, the design is made more flexible. UDL is about adding options to learning [think “chair lifts”] where they are needed. It is about proactively building flexibility into designs so that all learners can access all learning. And the flexible options we add (e.g., closed captions, graphic organizers, text-to-voice software) are offered to everyone. After all, I suspect other members of the Killilea family used that chair lift sometimes, too.
To Learn More about Universal Design for Learning, visit the CAST web page: cast.org
To Learn More about accessibility in design, visit the National Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) Center: aem.cast.org
Susan Shapiro is an Implementation Specialist for CAST.