Universal Design:  Applications in Postsecondary Settings
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Introduction to
Universal Design



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Introduction to Universal Design

What is Universal Design?

Universal design is a concept that has emerged from the architectural field and is now being applied in other arenas. Many of us recognize that architectural features designed to benefit people with disabilities are advantageous to everyone. Lowered water fountains, for example, allow children to get a drink without assistance. Ramps are more convenient when we are pulling luggage or moving equipment. The same phenomenon has occurred with newer technology. Cell phones equipped to send digital messages provide accessibility for people who are deaf, but are also convenient if you are in a meeting or in a noisy environment.

The principles of universal design can be used to guide course organization and development of course materials in a way that is accessible to a broader range of individuals. Many educators have embraced the concept of universal design because the application of it benefits all of the students in their class. Here are a few examples of the students who benefit:

  • Students for whom English is a second language.
  • Students who have older computer technology or browsers.
  • International students.
  • Nontraditional students.
  • Students with disabilities.
  • Students with a learning style that differs from that of his or her instructor's teaching style.
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Universal Design as a Philosophical Framework

The concept of universal design stems from a broader philosophy that views disability as "the systemic mismatch between physical and mental attributes of individuals and the present (but not the potential) ability of social institutions to accommodate these attributes" (Schriner & Scotch, 2001). Historically, society has instead viewed the "problem" as existing within the person with a disability. This paradigm is often referred to as the medical or pathological model of disability. A newer paradigm, one that values the concept of universal design, is referred to as the human variation or interactional model. As institutions of higher education begin to make the shift from the older paradigm to the new, we will likely see changes in policy and practice that reflect this new perspective. Adopting universal design as a philosophical framework within which to design course curricula and organize academic programs will likely result in new and improved techniques for the instruction and inclusion of all students.

We do not intend to imply through the creation of this website that the concept of universal design can be reduced to a list of ideas or even to a process. The process outlined on this site should be viewed as "the first layer of varnish" in the transformation of instruction toward the vision that universal design offers. It is our hope that as you view these examples of ways that universal design can be implemented, you will begin to gain a vision of other ways of incorporating the principles and that you will be able to adopt it as a framework for designing your courses, and making your program more inclusive.

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