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.

Ronald Mace, 1985, in Universal Design, Barrier Free Environments for Everyone

Where did Universal Design come from?

In the 1950’s it was ‘barrier-free’ design for people experiencing mobility impairments. In the 70’s and 80’s it was the belief that everyone’s functional capacity improves when barriers are removed. During this era, universal design mainly focussed on architecture, landscape, graphic, and product design. The most iconic design from that era is the curb cut: universal today, but the result of decades of widespread activism. It’s Universal Design.

It wasn’t until 2000 that UD properly established itself in digital education with Rose and Meyer’s book Teaching every student in the Digital Age : universal design for learning. Since then, UDL has become a familiar concept across North American institutions. More recently, whilst it is generally felt that the COVID crisis has improved awareness of accessibility, inclusion and supported wider UDL adoption, the pandemic also created and highlighted more barriers. In Australia, the ADCET was recently launched and partnered with the LX.lab inclusive practices team to support educators to teach in accessible ways at UTS.

Benefits of UDL

Universal Design, then, is a way of responding to changing space and developing technology not with panic and reduction but with planning for hybridity and transformation.

Jay Timothy Dolmage,  author of Academic Ableism, 2017

The intention of UDL is to design learning environments with fewer barriers right from the start. The general belief is that removing these barriers is essential for some students, while generally beneficial for all. This sounds a bit like interest convergence until we look at the multiple, overlapping strategies that can be practised.

Universal Design recognises that people’s abilities change over time and in different contexts. This is why the current UDL guidelines suggest the provision of multiple means of engagement, representation and expression. This means:

  • Engagement: what educators do to encourage and build on the interests and motivation of students.
  • Representation: the way information is presented to students for active learning via varied forms of application and interaction with course materials and within a diverse community.
  • Expression: the ways students communicate and demonstrate what they’re learning, share their ideas, compose for varying audiences, and then revise.

What UDL signals is that they have a right to be there and that they should be confident about expressing their needs.

Dr Elaine Tay, Curtin University

Dr Elaine Tay (Lecturer and Digital and Social Media Coordinator, Curtin University) explains the benefits of UDL for students, educators and the organisation:

Critiques of UDL

Not everyone is a fan and UDL is not the only way to practice inclusive education at university. Some have suggested the current trend for UDL is a risky belief without evidence. Others argue that it doesn’t get to the root of entrenched academic ableism at university.

The ‘neurorhetorics’ of UDL could actually undermine its message of inclusivity by effectively erasing disability as a valued and agentive identity. Claims that new research from neuroscience underpins the UDL framework are also spurious. Educational theories can use neuroscientific data but in the case of UDL it’s really hard to find out what this research is. References in the literature generally all point to one source: Rose and Meyer’s 2002 book on UDL.

Advocates often state it’s a scientific evidence-based framework rather than a strong hypothesis, but no research into brain networks and cognitive architecture correlates one-to-one with UDL’s graphic organisation. The problem with this isn’t that it makes UDL inherently wrong, but casual assertion without careful study can lead to overblown claims. It also creates a vexing, inescapable obstacle for those practicing universal design in universities: how to separate an essential idea from the ‘neuromyths’ that make it attractive?

Evolving UDL

UDL is not just a premixed alcopop in a can, though perhaps the association with bad undergrad hangovers is why it has yet to take hold at Australian universities? Bad jokes aside, one of the fundamental things we can easily miss about Universal Design is the evolving part of it. Design is a verb, a process, ‘a creation of possible futures’, not a static defined thing, a checklist or set of specifications.

Reanimating universal design into a worldview, a form of hope and a manner of trying may sound utopian, and UD is not a grand solution to be neatly packaged. We will create conflicts of access in the process, and this can create space for different ways to engage. This is part of creating more avenues for a wider range of staff and students to be present and participate, create and collaborate, read, write, sketch, move, revise and reflect.

To explore more about the practicalities of implementing UDL in Higher Education, join an upcoming Learning Design Meetup with guest speaker Frederic Fovet:

  • The balanced position this post takes, is refreshing. UDL seems to have gained traction (and acceptance) here in Australia whether one agrees in principle or not. For example, UDL is promoted on the NSW Government Education website

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