[ABCs of SPED] U is for Universal Design

abcs of sped Jul 25, 2018

Have you ever had a conversation (or been in a meeting) where someone laments that providing a certain accommodation is a waste of time/money/energy/personnel since it would only benefit one student?

I hope not. But my guess is that you have.

This default belief is common and it's dangerous. When we believe that providing access to people with disabilities is a favor to them, or an inconvenience to us, we hurt everyone.

Why? Because the research shows that when we make our classrooms, our companies, and our communities more accessible for people with disabilities, we all benefit.

This is Universal Design.

Confession time: I switched it up on you. The "U" in our ABCs of SPED series was supposed to be "understanding" but I've decided to focus on Universal Design instead as it's more concrete, and frankly, more interesting. You're welcome! :)

Universal Design is "the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability" (via universaldesign.ie).

What this means in practice is that accessibility features that level the playing field for people with disabilities can also benefit everyone else.

Some examples:

  • Curb cuts in the sidewalks benefit people in wheelchairs, but they also benefit people who are pushing a stroller or rolling a suitcase
  • Door-open buttons benefit people who use a walker, but they also benefit anyone whose arms are full, or young children for whom the door handle is too high or the door itself too heavy
  • Closed-captioning benefits people with hearing loss, but also benefits anyone who wants to watch a foreign language film or a parent who wants to watch tv while their child is sleeping (I know from experience!)
  • Adjustable height chairs benefit people with Dwarfism, but they also benefit growing kids

See the pattern? Universal design means creating spaces that are adaptable to the unique needs of everyone.

In the classroom, this is known as "universal design for learning." This mean that teachers can implement best-practice strategies and accommodations that will support students with disabilities, but will also likely benefit students without disabilities as well.

Examples in education can include:

  • Visuals in the classroom, such as a visual schedule
  • Allowing choice for how students demonstrate their knowledge (a test, project, essay, drawing, video, etc)
  • Flexible or alternative seating options
  • Providing directions, and instruction, in multiple formats 
  • Providing manipulatives or other real-world tools to help make concepts tangible
  • Pencil grips, calculators, or other low-tech assistive technology
  • Initiating "class jobs" to increase skills

Really, anything that a teacher puts in place to support the academic, social, or behavioral goals of a student with a disability has the possibility to benefit other students because students with disabilities are not that different from students without disabilities

Now, that's not to say that we accommodate people with disabilities BECAUSE it benefits everyone. We accommodate people with disabilities because it's the right thing to do, and because most of the time it's a legal requirement to do so. 

That said, calling on the research behind Universal Design is a great way to advocate for a certain intervention or accommodation for your student, particularly if there's push back about doing something for just one kid

Want to learn more? I suggest checking out Understood.org (as always!) for more information about what this could look like for your student. 

Check back next week for the mysterious "V" in our ABCs of SPED series. It's getting interesting over here as I tackle V, X, and Z so soon!

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