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August 27, 2010, 08:00 AM ET

Academic Resources and Universal Design

Photograph of several people lying on the ground, their heads together, in a circle.Previously, I've written about disability and accommodation in the classroom, and on Wednesday I noted the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Recently, a new book from MIT Press caught my eye: Design Meets Disability, by Graham Pullin (MIT Press | GoogleBooks | Amazon). While I wait for my review copy to arrive—stay tuned!—I'll just quote from the publisher-provided blurb to provide a sense of the book's content: "Eyeglasses have been transformed from medical necessity to fashion accessory. This revolution has come about through embracing the design culture of the fashion industry. Why shouldn't design sensibilities also be applied to hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and communication aids?"

Graham Pullin's field is design, but I'm interested in applying to the academic environment of higher ed his argument that design and disability can benefit from mutual influence. According to a study published this year in Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, colleges and universities are doing a pretty poor job of making their Web pages accessible to users with disabilities. This need not be the case: it's not very hard to design and create accessible web pages... unless you make all of your design choices with little or no regard for accessibility and add on those features last, and merely as an afterthought. And unfortunately, the inaccessibility of these Web pages is—in my experience—just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to accessibility in higher ed (on campuses, on Web sites, in libraries, at conferences...). The situation would be much improved if more of us embraced the concept of universal design, the idea that we should always keep the largest possible audience in mind in our design decisions, ensuring that our final product serves the needs of those with disabilities as well as those without. In fact, the argument goes, embracing universal design results in an improved environment for all people. To quote from Dwell magazine's "Introduction to Universal Design" article, "The classic example of universal design is the curb cut. Initially installed to help wheelchair users navigate from street to sidewalk, these unobtrusive bits of public design turn out to be just as useful for parents with prams and travelers lugging wheeled suitcases."

And if the concept of universal design is not compelling, consider the fact that the U.S. Justice Department is considering whether or not to require organizations covered by the ADA to make their Web sites accessible. What follows are a few links that have been helpful to me as I've worked to learn more about these issues:

In what ways might academic environments be improved for all if more of us took the principles of universal design to heart? I'm thinking here of environments both physical (Does this classroom really need to be so crammed full of desks and chairs?) and digital (Why is this database so hard to get to and so confusing to use?). Let's hear from you in the comments! The more specific your ideas (or your experience) the better.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha]

Comments

1. jmkhoward - August 27, 2010 at 05:09 pm

This article could not be more timely for me--I'm trying to get the Kurzweil program installed in all of the computers in the labs. I have to develop identifiable, measurable reasons for a pilot program this fall. Any direction and advice would be immeasurably appreciated.

Why I want Kurzweil: it reads back text to students--invaluable to learners who retain information best by hearing, provides LD, ADD and ADHD students a means of immediate feedback as they write, contains brainstorming,outlining and wordprocessing features for all writers, and permits the instructor to deliver lessons on a single platform, rather than having to jump from widget to app.

However,I'm not wedded to Kurzweil. If there are any programs (Open Source?)or otherwise that deliver these features more cheaply, I'd consider using them as well.

So, while I hope to be using Kurzweil, I'm also looking for quick and dirty methods of providing UA that are cheap and, perhaps, not created as assistive technology, but which function as if they were.

2. 11186108 - August 27, 2010 at 08:24 pm

This article is on a topic which needs to be brought to everyone's attention - over and over! There will be some sessions on accessibility at the Educause conference this fall, and I hope that attendees will join in.

I strongly agree with the statement above that it is *much* easier to design in accessibility than to add it after the web pages are finished.

I wrote a series of blog entries about making some learning objects accessible to the visually disabled. They can be reached at http://www.educause.edu/blog/hes8/MyAccessibilitySagaanIndex/170128

3. drjeff - August 30, 2010 at 10:15 am

These discussions always leave me a little sad. I can't get over the feeling that no-one is asking the one useful question.

The question: How can accessibility be mainstreamed?

As long as there are separate blog posts and separate conference sessions and separate widget galleries for accessibility, it will always be treated by most like "a feature" which could be added on later (or not).

this whole situation is rather like the way Detroit viewed "safety" for decades, for those of us old enough to remember: only in the past few years has safety been a truly integral part of car design in Detroit. (Sadly, it's still not the case for SUVs or trucks, but that's another discussion.)

How can the transition be made so that everyone views "everyone can use this" as just part of what makes a good web page?

Until we get there, it seems we're just going to have more of the same.

4. drjeff - August 30, 2010 at 10:19 am

And, yes, the above comments generalize to other areas of design, not just web pages. 20 years after ADA, we're still seeing most building designs showing clearly that accessibility is an afterthought (at best).

5. george_h_williams - August 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Don't be said, @drjeff! The whole point of universal design is to mainstream accessibility. Sorry if that wasn't clear in the above post.

6. drjeff - August 30, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Oh, it's clear. It's just that the question HERE is "how would things be better once we get to the point that universal design is just part of 'good design'"?

Well and good, but it's a little like discussing how cool the rides at Disneyland are, without a plan to get to Anaheim.

Either it's going to happen by accident, because someone makes it happen, or not at all. I don't see anyone planning how to make it happen, which leaves "by accident" and "not" as the possibilities. Not exactly encouraging.

I hope I don't come off as disparaging your excellent blog post. This is really a meta-complaint, if you will.

7. eileenqueen - August 30, 2010 at 01:19 pm

I hate to start of the week sounding like a curmudgeon but as a professor I have found all of the necessary changes landing in my lap. Or on my shoulders is a better analogy. My poor shoulders are already burdened with extra-diligent enforcement of GE requirements, University requirements, college demands, departmental requests - my poor syllabus is now 15 pages long. Now I have to learn multiple new programs, each of which addresses one small aspect of UD. I do not have time or brain space to do that. If we cannot outsource this to TAs or some office of talented people, it ain't happening. Someday (thanks to the work you all are doing) these 'changes' will be normative; nobody would think of using a film clip that did not provide captions, or posting a lecture with a transcript, or a visual without a text description, etc. Right now, though, my very survival seems to require that I forgo any visuals, film clips, posted audio material, etc.

8. george_h_williams - August 31, 2010 at 08:11 am

@drjeff: I hear you. I hope to write more posts on this subject, posts that are "nuts-and-bolts" exaplanations of some of the choices to make when adopting a universal design approach.

@eileenqueen: The good news is that this isn't about learning an entirely new set of skills on top of the ones we're already having to learn. Instead, it's about making certain choices when we create the things we create using those very skills. And often, choosing something simple over something complex is the best choice with regard to universal design. Finally, it's going to be much, much less work to make these choices now--while we're creating the things we're creating: parking lots, web sites, classrooms, campus buildings, computer labs--than it will be to try to "improve" these things later by retrofitting them for accessibility.

9. drjeff - August 31, 2010 at 10:54 am

@eileenqueen: (re: george_h_williams) And, it's much less work, and the results are better, to be THINKING ABOUT these issues from the outset, and let them be among your guiding principles.

If people just had the single idea "everyone should be able to use this" in mind when designing things, we would probably never have needed anything like the ADA, or this discussion.

My question might be re-stated as: How can society make the transition to "It's more important that everyone can use something, than it is for it to look cool"?

Sadly, I have no answer, and don't think I've ever heard a terribly convincing one.

But it's answering this question, not piling on ever more layers of bureaucratic rules (the source of eileenqueen's despair) that will get us to where we want to be. So, without piling on, how do we get there? The reason for her despair is that all we ever seem to see is piling on.

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