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]

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