Assessment Expo 2008 (winner of Grand Prize)

Shift Happens: Reframing Disability and Reconsidering Paradigms


The staff at the Disability Resource center at UALR have experienced and implemented a paradigm shift over the last few years. This shift in thinking stems from two important constructs developed by disability scholars- the Social Model of Disability and Universal Design. These two constructs provide the opportunity to change the way Disability is framed in higher education and offer a new approach that leads to sustainability and improved usability of environments.

The Ultimate goal of these changes is student satisfaction, which leads to retention.


The values expressed in this paradigm shift are also reflected in FastForward, UALR’S Strategic Plan:

Goal Two: UALR will provide a student-center educational environment.
Objective One: The university will organize its operations and shape its practices, policies and procedures to be student-centered as possible, as evidence by increased student satisfaction and success.
Goal Six: UALR will support and strengthen its Human Resources.
Goal Seven: UALR will provide institutional infrastructure necessary to achieve its educational mission.
Objective One: The university will be a model of responsible stewardship of the physical resources of the campus.

What is the Social Model of Disability?


The Social Model of Disability (Oliver, 1990) defines disability as a difference, part of the diverse characteristics of humanity; the disability, in and of itself, is not disabling or a problem as it is a neutral factor. This concept takes the focus away from individuals and shifts it toward the removal of barriers in the environment that people with disabilities face in everyday life. In other words, the aim is to change the environment to be usable, not change the person or provide an accommodation.

The following chart compares the differences in the way the Medical Model and the Social Model view disability . The new model provides an opportunity to reframe the disability in a way that promotes usable environments, greater independence for persons with a disability, and demonstrates that disability reflects diverse characteristics and experiences that are integral to society.

Conceptual Model of Disability

Source:Carol J. Gill, Chicago Institute of Disability Research.
Medical Model(OLD) Social Model(NEW)
Disability is a deficiency or abnormality. Being disabled, in itself, is neutral.
Disability resides in the individuals Disability Derives from the interaction between individual and society.
The remedy for disability related problems is cure or normalization of the individual. The remedy for disability-related problems is a change in the interaction between the individual and the society.
The agent of remedy is professional The agent of remedy is the individual, an advocate, or any one who affects the arrangements between the individual and society.


Assessment activities by the disability resource center:

(Graphical View)

  • Contracted with the Institute of Government to conduct a survey of students with disabilities in 2005.
  • The focus for the DRC was on students with disabilities and accommodations.
  • The DRC staff began research on educating the campus.
  • The research led to outreach on the Social Model of Disability to the campus community.
  • The DRC added new questions on the 2008 students survey about campus environments.
  • Evaluation results demonstrate improvement in faculty response to students with disabilities.
  • The results of two IOG surveys help direct DRC outreach.
  • The DRC made shift from Medical Model to Social Model, including policies.
  • The DRC began a concerted outreach effort administrators, faculty and staff about social model of Disability and of Universal Design.
  • The IOG will conduct student survey in 2009, as well as a survey of faculty.
  • Anticipated results of the 2009 student survey and faculty survey should show the following outcomes:
    • Improved design in learning environments, which will lead to fewer individual disability-related accommodations being necessary.
    • Improved satisfaction for students with disabilities, which positively impacts retention; and
    • The outreach efforts by the Disabilities Resources Center are effective.

What is Universal Design?


Universal Design Defined:


“Universal design in education….

…means the preparation of curriculum, materials and environments so that they may be used appropriately and with ease, by a wide variety of people”

Frank Bowe
Universal Design in Education


The Principles of universal Design:
  • Equitable use.
  • Flexibility in Use.
  • Simple and intuitive use.
  • Perceptible Use.
  • Tolerance for error.
  • Low physical effort.
  • Size and space for approach and use
The Philosophy changes us to think in new ways-to anticipate the variety of ways, settings, and condition in which people perform a task or use an object
…and then to design the process, course, or object with those diverse possibilities in mind

UD doesn’t give us all the answers… but it challenges us to ask the right questions.

What does UD look Like?
Here are some little changes that make a big difference:

In the classroom:
  • Communicate Expectations Clearly.
  • Have the syllabus available for the students to obtain early if requested.
  • Provide examples of good answers to essay questions.
  • use the tangible models and hands-on activities when possible.
In IT environments:
  • Create web sites that are accessible to students using adaptive technology.
  • Purchase IT solutions that are known to meet accessibility standards.
  • Conduct Usability testing when creating websites and portals.
  • Make sure computer labs are physically accessible and that Assistive Technology is available on designated computers.

Universal Design results in disability-related accommodations being needed less often and by fewer students.