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Digital InclusionDigital Literacy

Digital Detox 2.8: Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility

curb cut and crosswalk
[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Bill Koulopoulos, DLINQ Director of Technology and Learning Spaces

As the number of students in higher education with identified (and unidentified) disabilities has grown, more attention is being paid to accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as frameworks for designing learning environments that support the inclusion and success of all learners. At Middlebury College, the Advisory Group on Disability, Access, and Inclusion identifies ways to make the college a more inclusive community, focusing on issues related to disability and people with disabilities. Broadly, this movement toward access and inclusion has its roots in Universal Design, introduced by Ron Mace (1941-1998) to describe 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. Mace was a disabled architect whose work in UD was rooted in a lived understanding that access is fundamental to civil rights. In 1997 he and his colleagues at the NC State Center for Universal Design developed a set of 7 Universal Design principles with corresponding guidelines:

  • 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 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.

We can apply this thinking to the digital landscape as well. As Natalie Shaheen and Jonathan Lazar write, “Just like built environments, digital environments can either be accessible or inaccessible to people with disabilities; the digital environment can either support or impede the inclusion of people with disabilities.” Inaccessible digital environments present a barrier to student learning and full and equal participation in the educational experience.

Over time educators and others have built on UD principles and developed practices, integrating them into instructional environments. Often called Inclusive Design or Universal Design for Learning (UDL) this process seeks to amplify access, inclusion and full participation in learning environments. Where UD focused on barriers in the physical/architectural environment, UDL focuses on potential barriers in the curriculum, and takes the stance that proactively designing learning environments to address barriers up front is less costly and time consuming than retrofitting after the fact. In this process, digital media are often called upon to provide flexible approaches to addressing instructional barriers.

Below, we offer some suggestions for small moves that can be used to make digital environments more accessible.

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