Access 101: Universal Design in Universities

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”1
–Ron Mace, Founder, Center for Universal Design

Universal Design in Universities

Universal Design in Universities
Universal Design in Universities

What your college or disability services office will make available to students with disabilities often consists of accommodations specifically tailored to a particular individual or type of disability. Examples include a wheelchair-accessible computer desk or tactile information on lab instruments. But through your own efforts, you may be able to offer additional accommodations that, it is hoped, will have an impact on the entire class.

What follows is a brief introduction to the principles of Universal Design (UD) as they apply to common classroom technologies. Typically, at the university level, lecture-course equipment purchases for students with disabilities are made at the institute level. However, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses, instructors often specify equipment. Either way, knowing a little bit about universal design will help you work with your students with disabilities, and as we will see later, it may help you improve your teaching for all students.

Universal Design in Universities large keyboard
Mechanical Large Keyboard

Image 1. Large print keyboard for low-vision users that is also useful for students with normal vision who are not adept at using a keyboard. (Image courtesy of VisiKey)

Universal Design in the classroom allows you to provide adaptations that allow students with disabilities to complete coursework and receive an education equivalent to all other students – with some small, easy alterations to your normal lecture delivery.

Professors are often surprised to find all students interested in the accommodations, and benefiting from them in their coursework. Successful and well-designed adaptations may make coursework and labs more approachable and effective for all students, not only those with disabilities.

Potential for Truly Universal Benefits

To appreciate the potential for universally designed technologies of all kinds, one need look no further than the sidewalk.

In the U.S., the first curb cuts were constructed in California around 1970. By 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated their use. The curb cut is a perfect example of universal design principles applied to public spaces. Curb cuts were originally designed to accommodate users of wheeled mobility devices such as wheelchairs. But curbs are as much a barrier to walkers with strollers or shopping carts as to users of wheeled mobility devices.

A curb cut resolves this problem for a wide range of people in a way that integrates the accommodation into the everyday architecture of the space. Assistive teaching methods can be similarly integrated into educational experiences, and we recommend following the principle of “design for all” in classroom accommodations to the extent possible.

Guidelines for Choosing Classroom Supplies

Understanding that it is nearly impossible for one product to solve all accessibility and usability problems, the following criteria should be used to determine whether a product follows the principals of universal design.

  • Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and Intuitive: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance of Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.2

Classroom Product Example

Image 3. Sanford® Expo® Dry-Eraser with Precision Point. Cost: ~$6

Image courtesy of Sanford, a Newell Rubbermaid Company

Image 4. Outline of Sanford® Eraser from Image 3 showing the narrow and wide ends of the products and how the eraser is inserted into the cradle.

A Sample Evaluation

How well does the eraser above meet these criteria?

  • Equitable Use: Product features extend usability to people with low vision, dexterity and mobility issues. (see Image 3)
  • Flexibility: Wide and narrow ends for erasing large or small areas. Accommodates both left and right-handed users. (See Image 4)
  • Simple and Intuitive: Finger grips make it easier to understand how the eraser is gripped in the hand. The shape of the cradle also indicates which direction the eraser goes in the cradle. (See Image 4)
  • Perceptible Information: Necessary information, such as which side goes on the board is obvious by the flatness of the eraser-side and the texture of the pad. Finger grips are indicated using a change in color and texture.
  • Tolerance of Error: The eraser is made of plastic which prevents injury from dropping the product. Pads are replaceable in case the pad gets completely used or somehow destroyed.
  • Low Physical Effort: The ergonomic design reduces the effort needed to grasp the eraser.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: The handle is sized to fit most hands and the pad is large enough to erase board in a small amount of time.

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