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What Is Universal Design?

Posted on Aug 27, 2012

In prior posts, the concept of universal design has been tossed around, but we have not yet attempted to explicitly define universal design. Fortunately, in Universal Design: Online Educational Media for Students with Disabilities, author Wendy Sapp explains what universal design is and why it is useful by looking at the Universal eLearner, an “online integrated learning module that incorporates accessible technology, universal design for learning, and best practices for online education,” as a good example of universal design in action.

At base, a product that is developed according to universal design means that “the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities are taken into account and accessibility features and options are built into the product.” In the past, students with disabilities were given either learning materials that were also used by students without disabilities or materials that did not include content that mirrored the general education curriculum. In both cases, students with disabilities end up receiving a sub-par education. Universal design emphasizes the importance of accessibility, thus prompting the inclusion of things like screen readers or captioning, which can allow students with disabilities to learn the same material as students without disabilities.

Additionally, it turns out that universal design benefits not just students with disabilities, but students in general. Wendy Sapp mentions that “multiple studies have shown that the same options that allow students with physical and sensory disabilities to access materials, specifically captioning and video description, also provide educational benefits for students with other disabilities, such as English language learners, and general education students.” From this, it is clear that universal design is a net benefit for all students.

Key features of the Universal eLearner include two tiers of captioning, two tiers of audio description, and end-of-movie-chapter summary information. Each of these is a good example of the application of universal design.

In the case of captioning, standard captioning can be useful for hard-of-hearing students who are proficient in English, but in the case of students who are deaf or struggle with English, the option of concise captioning allows for the use of a simpler vocabulary and grammatical structure. Concise captioning can also be useful to the extent that the text is easier to read while watching whatever is occurring on screen, instead of feeling compelled to focus primarily on either the video or the captioning.

Audio description is important for students with visual disabilities, and again, two tiers are used to accommodate as many individuals as possible. The first tier of audio description typically involves voice descriptions of text or on-screen actions when there is a break in narration or dialogue. In many cases, though, breaks are infrequent or too short to meaningfully convey visual information. The second tier of audio description solves for this by providing audio that can be played prior to the video in order to familiarize students with concepts that will be handled in the video.

End-of-movie-chapter summary information is somewhat similar to audio description, but in the case of summary information, reviews of the content covered in a section of an educational video.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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