Igniting a Universal Design Mindset on Campus

In a recent Educause Review article, Dartmouth faculty member Patricia Lopez along with Instructional Designers Erin DeSilva and Adam Nemeroff advocate for designing learning experiences for the widest set of needs using universal design (UD) principles. The principles of universal design, while most often invoked in higher education in service of meeting federal accessibility mandates, have been shown to improve the experience of all learners, regardless of disability status, when applied to instruction and learning.

"In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact."1


Lopez, DeSilva, and Nemeroff are part of a new taskforce at Dartmouth, Team Access, that aims to draw together the efforts of many constituents to effect change in accommodating student learning needs. As the article states, representatives from Student Accessibility Services, Classroom Technology Services, and Instructional Design are working with faculty and students to "leverage [their] collective knowledge to approach student accommodations and faculty development more proactively and purposefully." 

Lopez reflects on her experience incorporating universal design for learning into her teaching:

"The more I chatted with specialists and learned the components of universal design, the more I came to appreciate the importance of planning ahead — of ensuring that course materials are accessible to everyone before an accessibility need arises. As we worked through the different ways that I could make the course easier for a single student, the more I realized that working from a starting point of universal design is a form of care ethics. Despite my own frantic concerns about meeting the one student's needs, it dawned on me that there are so many students whose needs go unremarked, undiagnosed, or otherwise unknown for a variety of reasons. To be truly caring, to engage from the point of care ethics, is to act in such a way as to preclude the need for 'adjustments' for one or two students and to be prepared for the wide variety of student needs."

The authors propose a framework of assessing student and faculty needs, exploring possible accommodation solutions, and commiting to an ongoing process of evaluation and feedback to meet the widest range of learning needs. The article suggects an inclusive, relationship-based approach to establishing a "UD first" mindset on campus.

Read the article, "Igniting a Universal Design Mindset on Campus," in the December 4 issue of the Educause Review.

1. Council for Exceptional Children, Universal Design for Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Education Professionals (London: Pearson, 2005), 2.