A Campus Commitment to Universal Design
Respectfully submitted by:
Susan Queller, Director
Disability Resource Center
Melanie Thornton, Director
Sharon Downs, Associate Director
Disability Resource Center
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to providing a quality educational experience to a diverse student body. Among the identity groups that constitute UALR’s student diversity is the population of students with disabilities. The university’s dedication to providing an accessible and quality education to students with disabilities is evidenced in the institutional non-discrimination policy, the Web accessibility policy, the Academic Adjustment (and course substitution) Policy; an ADA committee that is unique in that it has an annual budget; and administrative support for innovative projects and programs through the Disability Resource Center office and grant-funded projects that focus on outreach.
UALR’s recent strategic planning process has resulted in a vision for the future which challenges the campus community to reach higher and work smarter. The authors of this paper propose the adoption of universal design and its guiding principles as an avenue for achieving one aspect of this vision. The paper will outline how this new paradigm will assist us in working toward the following goals and objectives of the UALR’s strategic plan:
Goal One: UALR will provide programs of study that will educate students to live, work, and lead in the complex, technological, diverse world of the 21st Century.
Goal Two: UALR will provide a student-centered educational environment.
Objective 1: The university will organize its operations and shape its practices, policies and procedures to be as student-centered as possible, as evidenced by increased student satisfaction and success.
Goal Six: UALR will support and strengthen its human resources.
Goal Seven: UALR will provide the institutional infrastructure necessary to achieve its educational mission.
Objective 1: The university will be a model of responsible stewardship of the physical resources of the campus.
UALR has been a forerunner in its response to students with disabilities. The campus has never adopted a posture of minimal response, but has instead played a leadership role in the state and beyond through the implementation of innovative programs that have resulted in a more accessible and welcoming environment for students with disabilities. UALR established a staff position for providing services to students with disabilities long before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, whereas many postsecondary education institutions had no formalized process in place for accommodating students with disabilities until the 1990’s. Originally established as “Disabled Student Services,” then “Disability Support Services,” Disability Resource Center remained ahead of the curve in the years that followed. Referred to as the “accommodation model,” the service delivery model of this office has been shaped by disability laws and best practices identified by universities around the country. The accommodation model could be described as follows:
- There is an aspect of a course, program, or process that is not accessible to all students.
- The response is to make an adjustment or apply an accommodation for a particular student that solves the problem in that particular course or situation.
- The next time a student with a disability is unable to access that element of the course or aspect of the learning environment, the same (or a different) accommodation is applied once again.
- Accommodations are generally provided after in effort to fix the inaccessible environment or process.
This model has been the accepted model of response for some time, and is effective to some degree. As we shift our thinking about disability and inclusiveness, however, it becomes clear that this response is similar to retrofitting an inaccessible building versus building it accessibly from the ground up—it is not sustainable and does not optimize the use of our resources. The accommodation response is, in many instances, a “separate but equal” response. Students with disabilities are separated out or segregated in order to receive access. The social model of disability and universal design offer a segue into a new era of responding to disability in postsecondary settings.
The Shift: Changing the Way We Think About Disability
Historically, society has viewed disability in a negative light. In this view, the disability is a “problem” that exists within the person and the goal is to “fix” the person. This paradigm is often referred to as the medical model of disability. A newer paradigm is referred to as the social model of disability. In this paradigm, disability is viewed 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). 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. When we as an institution shift our perspective toward the social model of disability, our vision for our campus also shifts. We begin to see that business as usual is not an option and we see accessibility not as a matter of compliance but as a matter of social justice. It becomes clear that good design means, among other things, that a product, process or environment is, to the greatest extent possible, usable by everyone.
Even though the accommodation model has been the primary mode of operation, the DRC has always been involved in proactive endeavors as well. The staff have worked to remove barriers and to resolve problems on a systems level where possible. In recent years, more and more staff time has been dedicated to advocating for and assisting in the creation of usable and sustainable learning environments. As a result, staff members have participated on campus committees and have worked to remain informed about the many issues that might impact accessibility whether in the built environment, the programmatic environment, the information environment, or the IT environment. This shift toward creating environments that are accessible from the ground up has resulted in extremely successful collaborative relationships with several entities across campus and highly accessible environments that are also more usable for all students.
One example of such a successful collaboration is the current UALR Web design. The designers created the UALR Web template with principles of accessibility in mind which are also consistent with good design practices. The end result is a more accessible and usable UALR Web presence which, as a result of Computing Services’ creative use of an open source product, is also more sustainable. Such examples of exquisite design illustrate that when collaborative efforts occur on the front end, accessibility is integrated seamlessly into the product and there is no need for retrofitting. This approach to Web design and the process of migration to the new UALR design is an excellent example of the application of the principles of universal design.
Universal Design: A Proactive Response to Student Diversity
Universal design is a concept that has emerged from the architectural field and is now being applied in other arenas. The term “universal design” was defined by the team of architects, environmental researchers, engineers and product designers who are credited with its origin. They define universal design as “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.” This same team of professionals developed a set of seven principles which guide designers in the development of products and environments to maximize usability and accessibility.
The Principles of Universal Design
- Equitable Use - The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
- Flexibility in Use - The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- Simple and Intuitive Use - Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
- Perceptible Information - The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
- Tolerance for Error - The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Low Physical Effort - The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Size and Space for Approach and Use- Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
Source: North Carolina State University, Center for Universal Design
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. These are examples of the principles of universal design in action.
More recently, efforts are being made to develop and apply this concept in educational settings. One of the pioneers of this effort is Frank Bowe, author of Universal Design in Education. He defines universal design as it applies to the educational setting as “the preparation of curriculum, materials and environments so that they may be used appropriately and with ease, by a wide variety of people.” Many educators have embraced the concept of universal design because its application enhances instruction for all students. Here are a few examples of the students who benefit from environments designed based on the principles of universal design:
- Students for whom English is a second language
- Students who have older computer technology or no access to high-speed Internet
- International students
- Nontraditional students
- Students with disabilities
- Students with a learning style that differs from that of his or her instructor’s teaching style
Adopting universal design as a framework within which to deliver instruction, plan our services, and organize academic programs will result in new and improved techniques for the instruction and inclusion of all students.
Universal Design FastForward
When we fast-forward to a time when UALR has made the shift from the old medical model of disability to a new paradigm in which disability is viewed as an aspect of diversity integral to our society and to our campus we see people with disabilities participating fully in all aspects of the university experience. We see people with disabilities in leadership roles. Students with disabilities, or all students for that matter, are better able to navigate the learning environment independently. We see how this shift has contributed to the ambitious vision that is set forth by the university’s strategic plan. The campus is a model of student-centeredness and is responsive to student diversity. The principles of universal design are aligned philosophically with and, in fact, provide a guide for creating learner-centered environments.
As we fast-forward, we see a campus community that collaborates to construct usable, equitable, inclusive and sustainable learning environments. We can see staff rethinking existing processes when they present barriers to students. We see opportunities for student inputs in all aspects of campus and university life and we see those inputs immediately informing the design of those environments. Our students report increased satisfaction because they experience an environment where learning preferences are valued. We see student retention and graduation rates increase as students are more engaged and are able to learn in the way that best suits their learning style. Our students have learned through the examples of our faculty and staff and their response to diversity that difference is not just to be tolerated, but that there is strength in diversity. These students are better prepared to “live, work, and lead in…the diverse world of the 21st Century.”
When we look to the future of UALR, we hear discussions taking place about disability and the need for accessibility and these discussions are not just about students but about faculty, staff, visitors and alumni who have disabilities as well. As we examine this more inclusive, welcoming environment that we have created, we see that the make-up of our faculty and staff more closely reflects the diversity of our student body. We see a campus community whose members work smarter—where our most prized resources, our human resources, are directed toward ever-improving the educational experience for our students through proactive, not reactive, responses to the barriers we identify. As a result, we see increased efficiency, effectiveness and increased satisfaction among our faculty and staff. We see faculty and staff who embrace new ideas, develop creative solutions, and continue to look forward—FastForward.
The authors of this paper recommend that the University of Arkansas at Little Rock adopt the social model of disability and universal design through the following actions:
- Adopt a formal campus-wide commitment to universal design and publish a summary statement on key web pages and in undergraduate and graduate catalogs.
- Infuse universal design concepts in faculty and staff training—especially training that relates to course design, Web design, information delivery, and service delivery.
- Implement a campus diversity initiative and include Disability as an aspect of the diversity that is an integral part of our campus community.
- Revisit campus policies and adapt them to reflect this paradigm shift.
- As staff and faculty orientation materials are developed, incorporate messages that promote this philosophy as a part of our campus culture.
- Use the principles of universal design to guide construction/development of all aspects of the campus environment: the built environment, classrooms and labs, the IT environment, instruction, programs, and services. Engage faculty, staff and administrators in identifying disabling environments and reconstructing them based on these principles.
- Hire architects who are trained in universal design principles and involve the Chancellor’s Committee on the ADA in the early planning stages for new buildings and remodeling projects.
- When we have to retrofit a process, product or environment or provide an accommodation, consider this a signpost pointing toward the need for redesign.
- Promote inclusive, equitable design with our vendors or potential vendors by communicating the need for products that are usable, to the greatest extent possible, by all of our students, faculty, staff, visitors and alumni and purchasing products that meet our standard.
- Utilize the following as guiding principles as we move forward toward this vision of a more equitable, sustainable and usable campus environment:
Sample statement: The University of Arkansas at Little Rock values people with disabilities as an integral part of our diverse campus community. We are committed to the creation of usable, equitable, inclusive and sustainable learning environments based on the principles of universal design.
- Disability is an aspect of diversity that is an integral part of society.
- Disability is a social construct resulting from the present inability of social institutions and designed environments to accommodate individual differences. (Schriner & Scotch)
- Access is a matter of social justice.
- Good design means, among other things, that a product, process, or environment is, to the greatest extent possible, usable by everyone.
- Creating and advocating for usable, sustainable, and inclusive learning environments is a shared responsibility.
Many positive changes are already occurring on our campus. The shift has already begun to take place as DRC representatives are invited to the table in the planning stages of Web development, software purchases, and other decision-making processes. It is our hope that by taking a formal position on this important issue, we can work together to create a tipping point that make this paradigm the primary lens of our campus community and will make our vision become our reality.
A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all.
Association on Higher Education and Disability. (n.d.). Universal design a guide for students.[Brochure]. Waltham, MA: Author.
Block, L. S., Loewen, G., & Kroeger, K. (2006). Acknowledging and transforming disabling environments in higher education: AHEAD’s role. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. 19(2), 117-123.
Bowe, F. (2000). Universal Design in Education: Teaching Nontraditional Students. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey.
Gill, C. (1994) Two Models of Disability. Chicago Institute of Disability. University of Chicago.
Shriner, K. & Scotch, R.K. (2001). Disability and Institutional Change: A Human Variation Perspective on Overcoming Oppression. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 12 (2).
The Center for Universal Design. Retrieved June 1, 2007 from www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/.
Universityof Arkansas at Little Rock. Retrieved June 1, 2007 from www.ualr.edu/strategicplan/.
We are indebted to the Association on Higher Education and Disability and the leadership provided through the Universal Design Initiative. We would specifically like to thank Carol Funckes, University of Arizona; Elizabeth Harrison, University of Arizona; Sue Kroeger, University of Arizona; Gladys Loewen, Assistive Technology-British Columbia; and Bill Pollard, University of Massachusetts - Boston for their guidance and leadership during the 2006 Universal Design Leadership Institute. We would also like to acknowledge Renee Sartin-Kirby of the University of Wisconsin - Parkside for the concept for this position paper.