By: Beth Hale and Heather Mariger
We are often asked, what is the difference between Accessibility, Accommodations, Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They are certainly related, but the distinctions are quite important.
Accessibility focuses on creating an environment (both digital and physical) where people with disabilities can access the same information and services as those without a disability without having to wait, rely on others, or settle for a substandard facsimile. On campus, it is making sure that students can participate as equal peers in their educational experience.
Over the years, it became apparent that many of the things we did to make things accessible, made them easier to use and more convenient for everyone. For example, electronic doors were developed to help people with mobility issues to enter a building, however, they are also useful for people who have their arms full, or are wrangling children and pets, or even to avoid the awkwardness of getting stuck holding the door for a large group of people! In the digital world, we discovered that the same things that make a document accessible, also make it easier to use on a mobile phone or tablet, and studies have shown that captioning and transcripts help promote learning for all students. This was the beginning of Universal Design. The realization that we can embrace inclusion by creating spaces and materials that can be used by everyone rather than having to create custom options or take a reactive approach to addressing student needs.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes the lessons of accessibility and universal design and places them in the learning and cognitive arena – as its name implies: it designs instruction universally, for all students, rather than for individuals with specific needs. When we use universal design, we preempt the need to implement many accommodations. For example, a common accommodation is additional time on tests. A UDL approach might be untimed, and even open-book, tests. Both methods reduce barriers like test-anxiety or cognitive overload, and help all students in the class.
This is not to say that “one size fits all” – while thoughtful and accessible design can most definitely help to alleviate barriers, not all needs can be resolved by design alone. For example, a student may need a sign language interpreter for lectures, a distraction-free environment during testing, or materials in a specialized format such as Braille. This is where Accomodation comes in. By taking a proactive approach to design, we leave Student Accessibility Services free to focus on helping students with things that are not readily solved by good design practice. All of which leads to better outcomes and success for our students.