Why Universal Design?

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) addresses the needs of a wide range of students from the beginning of the course design process. The UDL mindset is that all students can succeed and learning experiences can be adapted so that there are a variety of "normal" ways to participate. This mindset is especially important given that unconscious or unexamined beliefs about people with disabilities can negatively impact the classroom environment. While most educators would say that they would like each student in their class to be successful, subtle forms of ableism, or the bias against people with disabilities, can creep into our everyday language and actions. These actions can quietly sabotage the chances of success for some students. This is why it is important to design your course using multiple means of action, engagement, and expression. This systemic solution can help to prevent ablesim from infiltrating a course.

Student Experience

Here are a variety of student perspectives on disability, accommodations and Universal Design for Learning in the classroom. It is always good to remember that the choices we make in course design have real impacts on real students.

Brief overview of some disability theories

Why use Universal Design for Learning? One reason is because students with disabilities can be consciously or unconscious labeled as inferior learners. Examine the quote below and keep it in mind as you read about some common theories on disability.

I feel so bad for my student, being born blind is a complete tragedy.

Throughout Western history, people have viewed disability through a number of lenses. For example, in biblical times, people with disabilities were considered forsaken by God. Disability theory names several patterns of thought including:

  • Medical model- people with disabilities should live under the confines of medical professionals, they perhaps do not belong in the classroom
  • Functional limitation- disability is a limitation that must be overcome, disability is at best a nuisance and at worst, a tragedy
  • Minority group paradigm- people with disabilities are thought of as an oppressed minority group, they are only victims in society
  • Social justice perspective-disability is socially constructed, society needs to reinterpret "normal" so that disability is no longer considered abnormal.

Consider the quotation above. What underlying ideas about disability might the person who made this statement have?

Educators are encouraged to take a social justice perspective on disability. A strengths model empowers students to focus on what they can bring to the classroom, rather than on any limitations. Courses should be designed to incorporate a variety of ways to participate so that everyone is included, instead of pitied. Read more about the theoretical foundations for Universal Design for learning in this brief summary by Nancy J. Evans.

Faith and Universal Design

Seattle Pacific University's faithful heritage allows us to embrace Universal Design for Learning as a part of our Christian practice. Pam Christensen, a former SPU student and staff member, and current Associate Director of the Kids & Family Ministry at Quest Church in Seattle shares some of her thoughts on faith and ability.