Some people in higher education don’t get universal design, especially when creating curriculum or web sites. UD isn’t about the branding or style. And it isn’t about accommodation or creating content for the lowest common denominator student (a phrase that borders on insulting to those students who are left out when universal design isn’t practiced). UD is about getting it right the first time by providing content accessible to all users, not just those with a disability. Instead of one-size-fits-all, UD recognizes that there are numerous sizes. The goal is to provide a continuum of sizes to fit each individual. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point entirely.
The original view on accessibility was that you had to create a special solution for disabled users in addition to your general solution for non-disabled users. After you created your original curriculum (or web site), you went back and tried to add features that made your site more accessible. For example, building that whizz-bang, Flash-only (“high bandwidth”) web site, and then duplicating it as a text-only (“low bandwidth”) site. Sound familiar? It was a compliance issue: as long as you made something accessible, you were in the clear.
For those who can’t get past 1998, universal design is about building things that everyone can use, no matter their level of capability. It is this simple:
“In terms of curriculum, universal design implies a design of instructional materials and activities that allows learning goals to be attainable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Such a flexible, yet challenging, curriculum gives teachers the ability to provide each student access to the subject area without having to adapt the curriculum repeatedly to meet special needs.” ~ Curriculum Access and Universal Design for Learning
For goodness sake, universal design is trying to reduce the workload and number of special requests. That has to be positive, right?
The same goes for web sites. Good web designers/developers make an effort to create very well formed, semantic and progressively enhanced web sites. Not only does this approach help organize content in a cleaner, more reusable fashion, but paying attention to standards up front means that my web site is usable by everyone. I don’t have to go back and create a segregate site that is specifically accessible to certain people. Instead, I get to manage a single site that provides complete content to all users. With progressive enhancement (rooted in universal design principles), that content can be experienced by users with a broad range of capabilities.
People who don’t get UD feel that if they can’t have their Flash-only website, they are limited in some manner. I’ve found that web sites that follow a progressive enhancement model (build it first so it works for everyone, then add layers of the “whizz-bang” so you get the final product you want) end up more powerful and more robust. You have to work smarter on the front end, but there’s a kind of gestalt that happens when you do it well instead of just doing it with the latest/greatest technology (or the way you’ve always done it).
UD is meant to be an approach that takes the segregation out of accessibility efforts. Instead of accommodating after the fact, we are simply designing better content. If you do it right, you are not creating curriculum for the lowest common denominator. You are creating curriculum that can be consumed by the widest range of students possible. You are creating web sites that reach the widest possible audience. To attempt otherwise is to stick with the idea that all students (and web site visitors) are alike. We know they are not, and we know their learning/interaction styles are not the same (disability or no). Even if disabilities were not at issue here, universal design would still be the best way to create curricula, web sites, buildings, sidewalks, etc., because universal design recognizes that worthwhile learning and interaction cannot be homogeneous.
Pony up your stale curricula and inaccessible web sites, academia, and build something that works for each unique student or site visitor instead of something that works only for people with the same capabilities as you.