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Universal Design: Improving Online Learning for Students with Disabilities

Universal Design (UD) was developed in the 1990s by a group of architects and engineers at North Carolina State University. The Center for Universal Design describes UD as “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.” This is key.

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, the director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington, elaborated on this feature of the approach: “Universal Design is a step beyond ADA compliance. A typical building where you might have a little ramp on the side of a couple of steps, that would be accessible, probably usable. But, the better solution is to have a wide sloping ramp into the building, so that everyone is entering through the same door, the same entryway.”

UD is leading the way in increasing the accessibility and inclusivity of spaces, products, and services. Check out how UD is transforming online education through the experience of an expert, Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler.

Meet the Expert: Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD

Sheryl Burgstahler

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler is an affiliate professor in the College of Education and director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington. She is also the founder of the DO-IT Center and the UW Access Technology Center.

Dr. Burgstahler is the author of more than 100 publications including nine books. Her most recent work, Creating Inclusive Learning Opportunities in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice was published in 2020 as a companion to Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice (2015).

Additionally, she is the principal investigator and co-investigator of numerous grant-funded projects related to assistive technology and the UD of learning opportunities, speaking nationally and internationally. She has degrees in mathematics and education and extensive teaching experience in onsite, online, and hybrid courses in a variety of educational contexts.

In 1995, Dr. Burgstahler taught the first fully online course at the University of Washington with her colleague, Dr. Norm Coombs, who is blind, and was a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology at the time.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design is a framework for making physical spaces and products more accessible and inclusive. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) created the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework and guidelines to support the process of making learning transformative for all students. These tools address the why, what, and how of learning through:

  • Engagement: stimulating interest and motivation
  • Representation: the presentation of content in different ways
  • Action & Expression: offering a variety of ways for students to demonstrate learning

This was a natural progression for Burgstahler, whose introduction to UD was making learning tools for a student with a physical disability in the late 70s:

In the early days of the Apple II, I worked with a young man named Rodney, who was quadriplegic. He was six years old trying to get into first grade, and they wouldn’t let him be mainstreamed. It was because he couldn’t write. He couldn’t use his hands. And so I thought, we’ve got an Apple II computer here. I can teach him how to use this computer, and then he can print things out.

Burgstahler’s interest in inclusivity was piqued. However, it was her personal experience that primed her work with Rodney and her subsequent career in working in public schools as a math and computer science teacher, later moving to assistive technology and universal design in higher education. Dr. Burgstahler had become sensitized to issues of accessibility and inclusion when her first husband became paralyzed from radiation treatments he was given for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma: “We were young, and we wanted to do things. He was very athletic, so that’s what got me interested in the physical environment. We’d go into restaurants and just because of a couple of steps, they were totally inaccessible to him.”

Accommodation vs. Accessibility

When Dr. Burgstahler joined the faculty at UW in 1984, she shared that “universal design was just part of my DNA by that time.” In fact, she was applying UD to her work in higher education long before there were standards for doing so: “Providing multiple ways for students to gain knowledge, demonstrate knowledge, and interact goes a long way toward making a course accessible to all students—including those with disabilities,” she said.

When applying universal design principles to learning, there is a necessary distinction between accommodation and accessibility.

While accessibility is proactive and refers to applying UD principles in the design of online courses, accommodation is reactive. It entails providing accommodations after the fact when requested by a student or a disability services officer. In online courses that are designed according to UD principles, students do not even need to self-identify. What’s more, such features are most often the hallmark of good instruction, which benefits all learners. Dr. Burgstahler pointed out,

Applying UD as distance-learning courses are being developed can be easier and therefore less expensive than quickly developing accommodation strategies each time a student with a disability enrolls in a course. UD can also make courses more flexible, thereby maximizing the learning of all students.

She referred back to UD’s origins and the concept of inclusivity:

When architects design buildings to be used by those who walk independently or with crutches, push baby strollers, and use wheelchairs, they are more accessible to everyone else. Similarly, distance learning courses that incorporate universal design features can be accessed by students with diverse characteristics, such as age; race; ethnicity; gender; native language; and ability to hear, see, move, and speak.

While accommodation is certainly preferable to non-accommodation, she explained that it is a band-aid approach. While course designers focused on accommodation might provide captions for video lectures if there was a deaf student in class, a UD approach would have proactively offered captions for a range of situations.

Dr. Burgstahler pointed out that the impact of accommodation versus accessibility was exacerbated by the onslaught of Covid-19 and the scramble to convert courses from face-to-face to online: “When the pandemic came along, it shined a light on how inaccessible online courses are…Now our disability services offices around the country are just swamped with accommodations requests for things that you wouldn’t even need as an accommodation if a course was accessibly designed.”

UD for Instruction in Action: Advice for Distance Learning Stakeholders

The onus for the accessibility of courses has traditionally fallen on students, or rather, their advocates, in requesting accommodations. However, there are key stakeholders in the delivery of distance learning courses:

  • Students and potential students
  • Distance learning designers
  • Distance learning instructors
  • Distance learning program evaluators

Also, Dr. Burgstahler’s approach to universal design emphasizes technical accessibility, usability, and inclusivity. An example: Some communication technologies, like video conferencing tools, are not accessible for all users. However, using the bulletin board system within a learning management system is often fully accessible. So choosing this tool would be technically accessible, usable, and inclusive for all learners.

In sum, stakeholders considering the accessibility of their learning systems are encouraged to do the following:

  1. Look at policies and procedures to determine where UD fits in.
  2. Decide what can be done proactively to make online learning accessible, and develop policies around these actions.
  3. Provide training for designers, instructors, and evaluators.
  4. Implement a bit at a time to avoid overwhelm.

Quick Tips For Instructors Interested in Universal Design in Online Education

1) Build accessibility into assignments by providing multiple methods to demonstrate learning. Ask yourself: How could I make that assignment accessible to that person without waiting for them to ask for accommodations?

For example, Dr. Burgstahler’s fully accessible, online course on UD in higher education at City University of New York gives students the choice to either

  • Find a picture of a physical space that was designed according to UD principles and post it with a description, or
  • Post a description of a physical place you’ve been that was designed according to UD principles

2) Stimulate engagement in online discussions by focusing them on one question at a time. In lieu of one lengthy discussion per week, consider two to three weekly online discussions, each addressing a different aspect of the content.

Require students to post a response to the question, as well as a comment on a peer’s response, and award points for both. Adjust discussion board settings so that students can’t view others’ responses before posting their own.

3) Avoid the use of inaccessible documents like PDFs. PDF is the hardest document to make accessible. Instead, post content within the learning management system, or use a word document, which is easy to make accessible.

4) Include a variety of ways to meet with students for office hours such as meeting on Zoom, using the LMS bulletin board, or other modalities.

For more information, check out the following resources by Dr. Burgstahler: