Creating A Culture of Inclusion: Shifting the Disability Frame

Creating A Culture of Inclusion: Shifting the Disability Frame

Melanie V. Thompson
Northern Illinois University

The use of Universal Design (UD) within higher education has primarily been directed towards students with disabilities. In recent years, research has proposed that UD is beneficial to a wide range of students, including but not limited to students with disabilities.  Students not speaking English as their first language, students who are non-traditional in age, and students with varied learning styles may all benefit from the infusion of UD within higher education.  In light of the far reaching potential for access and inclusion that is associated with UD, the ACPA Standing Committee on Disability (SCD) has proposed that UD become a standard framework for designing learning environments within ACPA and for individual member use.  Over the course of the next several months, the SCD will be spotlighting the use of UD from various perspectives within higher education including: (a) a disability resource provider, (b) a faculty member, (c) an individual with a disability, and (d) a student affairs professional.  The first article, from the Chairperson of the SCD will provide an overview of a UD framework and demonstrate the applicability of UD to disability resources within higher education.

Disability literature abounds with pleas to incorporate Universal Design (UD) within higher education (see Burgstahler & Cory, 2008; Higbee & Goff, 2008).  Currently, there is little reference to UD outside of disability-related research and writing.  Among disability scholars and practitioners, there is belief that the infusion of UD within higher education would improve the engagement and retention of all students, not just students with disabilities.  A handful of federally funded grant programs have set out to prove this.

By infusing UD into education, college students benefit from flexibility, adaptability, and tolerance for error in a supportive learning environment.  By changing the frame through which disability is viewed, institutions can continue to move forward including disability as a tenet of diversity.  Research asserts that as faculty and staff within institutions of higher education include components of UD in and out of the classroom, students with disabilities will have a decreased need for some types of accommodations and encounter fewer barriers. Disability Resource Centers may also benefit from increased use of UD in higher education; using UD may allow more opportunities to concentrate on barrier reduction and individualized problem solving since less time may be devoted to addressing short-term, temporary accommodations.

In light of support for the infusion of UD within higher education, the SCD has proposed to ACPA leadership that a UD framework be utilized within ACPA.  For example, UD could be used to inform the design of professional development, the web site platform and content, and membership materials.  Four SCD members have crafted this Developments series, “Expanding the Frame: Applying Universal Design in Higher Education,” to exemplify the intersections of a UD framework. Professionals in different roles within higher education have each written a part of the series. In the first of this four-part series on UD, I will provide an introduction to UD and discuss how my role as the director of a disability resource center is impacted by the use of a UD framework.  As you read through the series, I invite you to question how you could include UD in the work you do.  How could you inspire others to use UD?  Also, how does UD benefit students on a regular basis, whether those students have disabilities or not?

Universal Design Framework

Ronald L. Mace initially conceptualized UD as “the designing of all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (Center for Universal Design, 2010).  Well-known examples include curb cuts, closed captioning, and automatic door openers.  UD has subsequently been applied to education, which has been referred to as Universal Design of Instruction (UDI or UID) (see Burgstahler & Cory, 2008; Campbell, 2004; McGuire & Scott, 2006; Mino, 2004). Roberts, Park, Brown, and Cook (2011) would assert that there is no meaningful distinction between these two terms.  UD has also been applied to learning under the term Universal Design of Learning (UDL) (see Morra & Reynolds, 2010; National Center on Universal Design for Learning, n.d.).  Throughout the SCD UD series you will see reference to UD, UDI, UID, and UDL reflecting each author’s preference.

The Center for Universal Designlocated at North Carolina State University (see promotes the following seven principles of UD: (a) equitable use: the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities; (b) flexibility in use: the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; (c) simple and intuitive use: use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level; (d) perceptible information: the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities; (e) tolerance for error: the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions; (f) low physical effort: the design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue; and (g) size and space for approach and use: appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.  These principles are the foundation for UD, regardless of the context applied to.  To apply UD principles to instruction, Burgstahler (2008) suggests adopting the following process: (a) identify the course; (b) define the universe; (c) involve students; (d) adopt instructional strategies; (e) apply instructional strategies; (f) plan for accommodations; and (g) evaluate.

When UD principles are applied to instruction, the result is termed Universal Design of Instruction (UDI or UID), which McGuire and Scott (2006) define as “a framework for faculty to use in planning and delivering instruction and assessing of learning outcomes.  The underlying premise is a value system that embraces heterogeneity in learners and espouses high academic standards” (p. 125).  When UD principles are applied to learning, the result is termed Universal design for Learning (UDL).  The National Center on Universal Design for Learning (see promotes the following three principles of UDL: (a) multiple means of representation; (b) multiple means of expression; and (c) multiple means of engagement.

Regardless of the terminology used, the overarching premise of UD is to be proactive in design and identify multiple ways in which the end goals can be met. The forthcoming articles in this UD series will further demonstrate UD principles. For those wishing to learn more about the principles of UD, recommended readings include Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008), Rethinking Disability: Principles for Professional and Social Change (DePoy & Gilson, 2004) and Making Good on the Promise: Student Affairs Professionals with Disabilities (Higbee & Mitchell, 2009).

UD and Disability Resource Centers: One Perspective

In the fall of 2010, I completed research with 58 faculty and staff in which nearly half (44%) of the respondents reported having had no prior training regarding disability, limited awareness of opportunities to consult regarding accessibility concerns, and limited knowledge regarding barriers faced by students with invisible disabilities (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorder, traumatic brain injury, chronic medical conditions, and mental health diagnoses).  How could I expect faculty and staff to engage as advocates and allies for inclusion and barrier reduction if they were not aware of barriers, were not aware of consultation resources, and were not aware of the types of disabilities impacting a large percentage of students with disabilities?

During that same research, 35% of the respondents indicated they did not agree that disability was a component of diversity.  One major impetus supporting UD within higher education is the diversity of the student body.  Again I questioned how to identify and develop disability advocates and allies if over one-third of faculty and staff respondents disregarded disability as a tenet of diversity.

Since inclusive environments for diverse students increase retention rates (Lombardi, Gerdes, & Murray, 2011; Merisotis, 2008), I have found it imperative to identify ways faculty and staff can create inclusive environments for individuals with disabilities.  UD principles have been one way I have attempted to do so.  When sharing UD principles with others, whether during consultations, departmental meetings, or through university committee work, I often get an “a-ha” reaction in which the principles of UD are described as “common sense.” Another reaction I have received is that a UD framework may positively impact customer service.  While not an expected reaction to sharing UD, this customer service idea was an “a-ha” moment for me as well, and has positively impacted how I talk about UD within our Center, with staff, and with colleagues.

I have found select constituency groups willing to collaborate and proactively build inclusion for individuals with disabilities, particularly when invested in the outcome. This, I find, is preferable to demanding that groups conform because of legal, federal mandates. Framing UD as a customer service philosophy has resonated with some of these constituency groups.  I am not asserting individuals with disabilities are customers; however, I am saying in order to be student-centered, customer service may be viewed as essential.  If UD principles seem like good customer service principles for some, then using this analogy will remain as one of the many tools I employ to advocate for inclusion of individuals with disabilities.  I share this example more to demonstrate that engaging folks in a conversation about UD can be framed in myriad ways; I have found that finding what is salient to my “audience” goes a long way in building support for infusing UD into higher education.

The current college student population includes more non-traditional age students, veterans, and second-language learners.  Today’s students also represent a range of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds.  As an educational framework, UD is likely to help this range of students, including students with and without disabilities. UD is particularly valuable for students who have invisible disabilities and/or those who do not want to disclose their disabilities. Given the stigma often associated with disability, educators should not be surprised that many students choose not to disclose (Marshak, Van Wieren, Ferrell, Swiss, & Dugan, 2010).  Unfortunately, without disclosure, access to formal support and accommodations is typically unavailable within institutions of higher education.  By providing greater access to the widest range of students through UD, institutions and educators may reduce the need to disclose for some students.

As a disability resource provider and administrator, I have spent countless hours each semester working individually with faculty, staff, and students to resolve accommodation-based concerns.  Faculty have expressed frustration when students do not request accommodations until several weeks into the semester.  Some faculty have questioned the necessity for accommodations when students have requested them midway through their courses.  Staff have voiced frustration when students have not disclosed a disability until experiencing a barrier.  This frustration has frequently been linked to the cost of an accommodation needed to remove a barrier, which may not have been sufficiently budgeted for, if budgeted for at all, and has been linked to disappointment in the result of contributing to the exclusion of students with disabilities.  Students with disabilities have articulated frustration in having to do more than students without disabilities to experience a level playing field, in having to disclose personal information, and having to argue, advocate, and fight for legally protected rights.  Proactively applying a UD framework often can reduce all of these frustrations, simply by providing an inclusive and welcoming environment.

It was stated earlier that increased use of UD may benefit disability resource centers by allowing more opportunities for consultation on barrier reduction and individualized problem solving because less time would be devoted to addressing short-term, temporary accommodations.  Research (Lovett, 2010) has proposed that some accommodations provided on a semester or term basis could be reduced through the use of UD.  For example, some faculty have begun allowing extended time for all students to complete quizzes and exams, or have started to use assessment methods that are not constrained by a set amount of class time. Research (Ofiesh & Hughes, 2002) has suggested that students who do not need extended time do not do any better with extra time.  Conversely, research has also suggested that students who do need extended time and are not allowed it do worse than they would have done with extended time (Ofiesh & Hughes, 2002).  McGuire and Scott (2006) provided examples of how faculty can apply UDL in the classroom, including posting lecture notes online, sharing rubrics and/or models for written assignments, giving students formative feedback on writing assignments, and using varied instructional strategies (e.g., lectures, videos, guest speakers, group activities).

Next Steps

Next steps will vary depending upon individual roles within higher education and familiarity with UD principles. A good starting point is to identify the model of disability you personally embrace. Knowing how you frame disability will allow you to make informed decisions about including UD. Other next steps may include identifying advocates and allies that embrace UD; working with faculty/staff development centers to create trainings on UD; infusing UD into mission, vision, and program objectives; reviewing program requirements and physical locations for barriers; providing alternate format of materials; ensuring that online materials are accessible; and reviewing syllabi for inclusive/accessibility statements.


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About the Author

Melanie V. Thompson, Ed.S., NCC, LPC, LMHC, is the Director of the Center for Access-Ability Resources at Northern Illinois University. She also serves as the 2011-2013 Chairperson of the ACPA Standing Committee on Disability. 

Please send inquiries to [email protected]

The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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