Commitment to Universal Design in Education on
University of Wisconsin-System Campuses
Conceptual White Paper on Universal Design in Education on UW-System Campuses
November 5, 2004
PDF Print Version - 26 kb
The University of Wisconsin System (UWS) subscribes to
equal opportunity in education. Historically, the UWS has
expressed this commitment to include students, faculty and
staff through several institution-wide polices and procedures.
These include fundamental policies such as UWS 96-6
"Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability" and more
recent implementation of technology components in education
as described in the 1999 "Report of the UWS Committee on
Access to Technology for Individuals with Disabilities"
that was forwarded by UWS President Lyall to all campuses
for implementation. Additionally, ongoing work of the
UWS Office of Learning and Information Technology updates
and supports UWS campuses in newer methods for assuring
access to technology.
However, despite efforts to improve and assure that
UWS campuses remove barriers to people with disabilities,
a number of recently developed strategies related to
disability and design suggest that UWS needs to embrace
a new approach. Past efforts have focused on
accommodating students, faculty and staff with disabilities.
This is, in part, due to wording in early Federal legislation
that mandated "reasonable accommodation."
Accommodation approaches work well for many people, however,
individual accommodation inherently exhibits a number of disadvantages
for people with disabilities. Accommodating a person with a
disability usually require one-to-one special services. This works
well for individuals who have extensive or particularly complex
issues. However, for many others, individual accommodation is either
impractical, fails to work, or is too costly. For example, students
with mild disabilities such as those with learning disabilities,
the numbers of potential students to be serviced cannot effectively
and economically be provided using the time and cost expensive
special services model. The accommodations model also requires
that individuals with disabilities self-identify to obtain the
special services. Estimates of the prevalence of people with
disabilities in post-secondary environments suggest that many
people hesitate to identify themselves as having a disability.
Thus, many do not obtain services and put themselves as a student
or worker at risk of failure. The accommodations approach is also
intolerant of error. If an essential accommodation is missed by
the special services team, the individual is left without it.
Lastly, the need to seek out special and segregated services
does not place individuals in a position of educational equality.
Obtaining special services usually requires the individual to
locate services, go to a special office, take additional time
for this process, accept a special evaluation, and perform tasks
that no mainstream student or employee needs to undertake.
THE UNIVERSAL DESIGN IN EDUCATION (UDE)
Inclusive approaches for people with disabilities, such as
using Universal Design, try to avoid these disadvantages. An
example of a Universal Design application in architecture is
the use of a ramp instead of steps to navigate a short rise.
This helps everyone avoid the need to step up, step down, or
threaten tripping on the rise or drop. It assists the person
in a wheelchair, as well as the technician pushing an
audio-visual cart, and the mail delivery person. An example
of universal design in the classroom, is the instructor who
provides hand-outs in print and electronic form (such as via
email or on the WWW). With e-hand-outs, all students can
access the hand-outs from anywhere, anytime, and using a wide
variety of reading methods. The student who is blind or
another who has a reading disability can use speech output
reader devices to access the hand-outs. The student with
severe arthritis or another with hand paralysis, both with
significant dexterity problems, can use the computer to
access the paperwork. With electronic hand-outs all
students (if they wish) can alleviate needing to carry
binders of paperwork from class to class and from home to
The concept of universal design has roots in architecture.
The Americans with Disabilities Act profoundly improved
general access for people with disabilities and at the same
time demonstrated that many accessible design features
helped everyone. Since then the same strategy has shown
effective with computer operating system access, and most
recently website accessibility. However, to date, most
interventions have primarily been recognized as special
design methods targeting people with disabilities. The
Universal Design concept is that all designs should attempt
to optimize usability for everyone, regardless of where an
individual is located on the disability spectrum.
Universal design is for people with no known disabilities,
mild disabilities, moderate disabilities, and severe
disabilities. This includes individuals with temporary
(crutches) and long-term disabilities. Universal design
has been described as the next phase in the evolution of
better design for people with disabilities.
Historically, it appears that there are three phases of
development: the three "A's." First individual "Advocacy"
was needed. A person with a disability was the exception
and needed vigilant efforts for special designs and services.
Then, there was "Accommodation" where people with disabilities
were accepted and special services were expected and
institutionalized. Most recently, we have the era of
"Accessibility." With accessibility, proactive designs
can make aspects of education more universally available.
This last phase is best achieved through use of universal
Two definitions and a list of key universal design
principles from the Center for Universal Design at the
University of North Carolina are helpful to understand
the overall concept (http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm).
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."
Intent of Universal Design is, "to simplify life for
everyone by making products, communications, and the
built environment more usable by as many people as
possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design
benefits people of all ages and abilities."
Universal design experts highlight seven principles
of universal design. A product, environment or service which
applies universal design strategies strives to be
1) equitable in use, 2) flexibility as it is used,
3) simple and intuitive, 4) includes perceptible information,
5) tolerates error, 6) requires low physical effort, and
7) is created in a size and with space for approach and use.
Specific to instruction, universal design has been described
as a concept of "using teaching methods and strategies to
assist students with diverse learning styles, including those
with disabilities" (from a Center on Self-Determination, Oregon Health & Science University web page,
univ_design.html, no longer available).
ACHIEVING UNIVERSAL DESIGN
IN POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION:
Applying universal design on UW-System campuses can
significantly improve the access of all students to public
post-secondary education in Wisconsin. However, the
benefits of universal design will only occur with
deliberate attempts to implement its principles
system-wide and on each UW-System campus. Campuses
must develop plans and allocate resources to increase
the skills of faculty and staff to implement universal
design across campus functions.
Areas where overt efforts must be generated to
address the need for universal design are,
- the built-environment and teaching spaces,
- the information environment,
- and the curricular environment.
The built-environment includes all external campus areas
such as sidewalks, routes, parking lots, building and campus
signage. It also includes inside instructional areas such as
lecture halls, laboratories, restrooms and furniture. The
information environment includes both electronic and
non-electronic information. The World Wide Web,
registration processes, financial aid application forms,
textbooks, university policy and procedures, human
resources documents, library journals, radio and
television shows, and master's and doctoral theses all
reside as part of a university informational environment.
Lastly, the curricular environment includes all course
materials supporting instruction. The materials an
instructor provides in a power point slide show,
information placed in front of a class on a white board,
syllabi and class hand-outs.
Fortunately, some of these domains of accessibility
are already being addressed to some extent within the
UW-System due to past policies and procedures, federal
and Wisconsin state law. However, many of these areas
have not been addressed by proactive universal design
activity. The day can be envisioned when the blind student
can read and review class hand-outs as fast and
conveniently as his or her sighted peers. Or the
day when a graduate student in a wheelchair can find
and review past thesis and dissertations in the
library just as other graduate students will happen.
The universal design to access these types of resources
are within our reach, but only after sufficient expertise,
planning and concerted design efforts have been directed.
This white paper advocates for the development of
UW-System and campus resources to be made available for
efforts in universal design across these domains of
university activity. Specific attention should address
the following areas: 1) polices and procedures to support
universal design strategies, 2) planning on all levels
to deliberately include universal design as a consideration,
and 3) the identification and support of architectural,
information, and curricular experts on each campus to
serve as consultants in these respective areas.