How Universal Design can aid in leveling the learning landscape.
For my readers who don't know my story, I was "late-diagnosed" with Inattentive Type ADHD after my kiddo received his diagnosis, and I was made aware that it has a genetic component. Feel free to read more about my diagnosis journey (which includes neuropsychological testing and returning to school) on Alamo City Moms:
Before my diagnosis, I struggled in more ways than I can even remember. Only recently have I made the connections to how undiagnosed ADHD impacted my life. I come from an era where adults, especially females, were consistently overlooked for this type of diagnosis (Attoe & Climie, 2023.) As a result, no one in my life would have ever thought my issues were symptomatic of something more. This meant that to function in ways society considered "normal," I had to develop some solid coping mechanisms. Thankfully, I had a support system that impressed the importance of problem-solving and finding alternative methods when facing challenges.
So, what does this have to do with Universal Design Standards?
Universal Design (UD for short) provided the basis of many of my coping mechanisms. Again, this is something I only understood once I entered the fields of user experience and learning technologies. More specifically, it was advancements in the digital realm that provided a space for me to understand and more effectively cope in my physical life. I used spell-checking software to ensure I didn't fail papers due to grammatical errors. I also digested massive amounts of research on emotional intelligence through screen readers. This helped me build a personalized framework for self-regulation and awareness. The base ideology of Universal Design made these tools accessible in mainstream technology.
What is Universal Design?
I'll start by sharing what UD is in the most basic sense: crafting a world that is easier to use for as many people as possible instead of designing things with the average person in mind. Some common examples of this with foundations in UD include sidewalk ramps for wheelchairs, automatic doors (DO-IT, 2022,) and even the text-to-speech technology we enjoy in our e-readers or Alexa ("Speech Synthesis," 2023.)
While the term Universal Design was coined by Ron Mace and pertained to accessibility in building design ("Ron Mace," 2023), with concepts and ideas like 'barrier-free design,' 'designing for the disabled,' and 'accessible design' having been around since the mid-20th century ("Universal Design," 2023,) the principles continue to evolve into applications for all aspects of life.
What are Universal Design Standards?
If you look up what Universal Design Standards are, you'll be met with more Google page results than anyone would care to sift through and not one clear definition. That is because when any particular industry discusses UDS, it's in the context of their products or the general application of The (original) Principles of Universal Design proposed by The Center for Universal Design at NC. State University in 1997 (NC State University College of Design 1997), (Simmons, 2020.)
Principles of Universal Design
Flexibility in Use
Simple and Intuitive
Tolerance for Error
Low Physical Effort
Size and Space for Approach and Use
While the center is no longer operational due to funding, Mace's work lives on at the Universal Design Institute in North Carolina.
Check out this great example of applied Universal Design. ⇩
Universal Design Roots and Mediated Communication in Learning
Now that we've gotten a bit of UD history out of the way, what does UD mean for non-traditional learning environments (everything other than face-to-face?)
With the evolution of UD into other fields, the idea that more people could access more of our world led to the development of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) - "a concept that improves or optimizes teaching and learning for everyone in any learning environment ("What is Universal Design?" 2023)." which supports frameworks like Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) - instructional products and environments that are "usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design (Burgstahler, 2020)." These ideas, married with the push for greater accessibility in technology, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) international standard (Henry, 2023), and the growing acceptance of usability standards (Affairs, 2013), actively influence the landscape of our understanding in how people perceive, digest and interpret information, especially within the contexts of digital learning environments.
Okay, I know that's a lot of terminology, and you might wonder what that actually means for your kiddo, student, or even you. And please note my examples specifically address how to improve the digital learning experience and by no means are a critique of the measure our world had implemented during COVID.
On more than one occasion, I've had to participate in some type of "online learning." I'm sure many folks reading this post-COVID can relate. These activities came in the form of "how-tos" inside of applications that helped me order groceries during social distancing measures, instruction on remote learning technology, or, more traditionally, through education courses for me and my kiddos only offered online. And if your experience was anything like mine, you quickly learned that, at best, most instructions took a tremendous amount of effort to understand.
This issue had multiple causes. Some reasons included the legibility of online text and a product's general understanding of its user base. IMHO (in my humble opinion), at that time, our world had yet to reach the point where the average user encountered these obstacles daily. So, if the average person or, better yet, a student had a hard time during our "new normal," which current research suggests left a substantial learning gap (Dorn et al., 2020), consider the ways this impacted learners who aren't considered "average." This is where usability and accessibility advancements would come into place.
Instead of the instructions for the above-mentioned online grocery ordering app being hidden away in a menu, the app would have walked you through each step of the ordering process with a tooltip that pops up during each action. And, if you are someone who learns better with verbal step-by-step instruction, that would be an option within the application as well.
For the online learning example, instead of having worksheets scanned and large sections of instruction explaining how to complete the assignment, modularized learning with chunked concepts and, ideally, some interactivity for increased engagement would help more students understand the information.
These types of functionality help the average user as well as people with cognitive disorders, learning disabilities, and the visually impaired, to name a few. Implementing these designs within the base application allows a more significant portion of the population to participate in daily life, ultimately benefiting our society as a whole. You can view my insights on creating things that help our society here— Tales of Tech: Human Resilience and Innovation
If these standards are so helpful, shouldn't everything we use follow them?
Another great question, and yes!
Thankfully, there are organizations, governments, and cultural movements that agree with this notion, too.
With a reported 1 in 4 US citizens having some disability ("Disability Impacts All of Us," 2023) and 1 in 5 students reported having some disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018,) it's to the benefit of a company, organization, or product from a legal and socially responsible stance to adhere to universal design standards (National Disability Authority, 2020.)
To put this into perspective, expand this infographic on how Disability Impacts All of Us at the end of this article ⇩
These are just a few sites that address US specifications, laws, and guidance for digital landscapes:
21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act - https://digital.gov/resources/21st-century-integrated-digital-experience-act/?dg
Additionally, many countries have some form of legal standards regarding technology as a means to address varying gaps in accessibility and usability, and or they adhere to international organizations like the following:
Bringing It Home
Now that you know what Universal Design is and its application to digital learning. And we covered various supporting laws, regulations, and research. With that understanding, let's revisit my initial thoughts about using tools designed initially for disabilities to cope with my undiagnosed ADHD and other neurological disorders. Had the technologies I was able to stumble across when developing my coping strategies not gone mainstream, I'm not sure where I would be. I can only imagine what that reality looks like for people without the same access, background, or technical skills.
Now, put that idea into the context that over 11% of people with learning disabilities go through life unidentified (Barto, 2023), that we now know complex trauma affects learning (Peterson, 2018), (Keller, 2023,) or the realization that most of us experience some cognitive or physical decline during our life that benefits from an inclusive landscape. When we (society, organizations, and companies) invest in universal design, we cast a broader net by reducing barriers to include more portions of our population that otherwise wouldn't be addressed (Rao, 2021.)
This is why I find myself in the cross-section of usability, accessibility, information, and technology as I complete my degree in Applied Sciences in Learning Technologies.
It affects me personally.
It affects my family and those I love.
This affects ALL of us!
Attoe, D. E., & Climie, E. A. (2023, May). Miss.. diagnosis: A systematic review of ADHD in adult women. Journal of attention disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10173330/
Barto, A. (n.d.). The State of Learning Disabilities Today. Learning Disabilities Association of America. https://ldaamerica.org/lda_today/the-state-of-learning-disabilities-today/
DO-IT. (2022, May 24). What is Universal Design?. What is universal design? https://www.washington.edu/doit/what-universal-design-0#:~:text=Application%20of%20universal%20design%20principles,suitable%20for%20the%20average%20user.
DO-IT. (n.d.). Equal access: Universal design of instruction. Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction. https://www.washington.edu/doit/equal-access-universal-design-instruction
Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June). Covid-19 and student learning in the United States. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Public%20and%20Social%20Sector/Our%20Insights/COVID-19%20and%20student%20learning%20in%20the%20United%20States%20The%20hurt%20could%20last%20a%20lifetime/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-States-FINAL.pdf
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Henry, S. L. (2023, October 5). WCAG 2 Overview. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/#for
Keller, K. (n.d.). This is how childhood trauma affects students and what you can do. Texas Association of School Boards. https://www.tasb.org/members/enhance-district/how-childhood-trauma-affects-students/
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National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. (2023). Disability Impacts All of Us. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 30, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html.
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Rao, K. (2021). Inclusive instructional design: Applying UDL to online learning. Inclusive Instructional Design: Applying UDL to Online Learning. https://edtechbooks.org/jaid_10_1/preparing_teachers_f
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