Creating a Culture of Inclusion: Respectful, Intentional, Reflective Teaching

Creating a Culture of Inclusion: Respectful, Intentional, Reflective Teaching

Jeanne L. Higbee
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

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 nontraditional 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. In this Series, the SCD spotlights 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. This article highlights the perspective of a faculty member.

In their contributions to this series, Melanie Thompson, Jaci Jenkins Lindburg, and Karen Myers have traced the origins of Universal Instructional Design (UID) and provided guiding principles, so I would like to address my approach to UID and why it matters. To me it is important to consider the unique expressions of different aspects of social identity that play such an important role in how individual students construct and demonstrate knowledge. UID involves first considering the diversity of the students who might enroll in my courses and then how pedagogical choices can advantage or disadvantage students. I am not exaggerating when I assert that implementing UID benefits all students

When I first began writing about UID, reviewers would respond by asking, “How is this any different from good teaching?” (Hodge & Preston-Sabin, 1997). They were right to ask; with its foundation in Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” that is exactly what UID is, but too often our implementation of these guidelines is superficial. We still tend to teach the way that we were taught without thinking critically about how each decision we make as we develop our curricula, syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, and assessments of learning may impact individual students.

My Own Story

I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been engaged, for almost 40 years, in a career I love that has spanned academic affairs and student affairs, and that has provided the privilege of interacting on a daily basis with students throughout the United States and the world. When I think back to my educational beginnings, I realize that it is only because, at various points along my path, teachers took a special interest in me and advocated for me that I have had the opportunity for such a full and fulfilling professional life. Over the years I have written and edited publications that have featured students’ and colleagues’ stories. This is the first time that I am sharing my own story in print.

I have never been diagnosed with a disability. I had already completed my doctorate before I became knowledgeable about learning disabilities (LDs). In elementary school in the 1950s, I annually scored at the 99th percentile in math on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skill, but below the 20th percentile on the verbal measures. My younger siblings were both in “accelerated” classes. In my family I was the “dummy”—my siblings’ term, not mine (and one I would like to see eliminated from contemporary use, especially considering the historical roots of the term dumb). If not for my fifth grade teacher’s support and unconditional belief in my abilities, and my tenth grade geometry teacher who saw my potential, I would not have been placed in the appropriate mathematics courses that paved the way for completing calculus as a senior in high school.

I continued to score at the 99th percentile in quantitative areas, including on the SAT and GRE, but my verbal scores had a devastating impact on my cumulative test scores. I began college as a Home Economics major because I liked to sew and wanted to help people in a practical way. During my first two years at Iowa State University, I changed majors within the College of Home Economics six times and finally realized that I was unsuccessfully trying to make a hobby into a career. No one ever thought to discuss mathematics-based career options, which despite gender stereotyping still prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, might have been open to me.

As I began to explore alternative college majors, it was the professor in my elective sociology course on institutionalized racism who encouraged me to consider graduate school. After 2 years in Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), I pursued a Master of Science in Counseling and Guidance with an emphasis on college counseling. At the end of that program, my advisor told me that I was “not Ph.D. material.” However, another professor in educational administration/higher education, advocated for my admission to the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thereby changing my career path.

As I begin to plan for retirement and look back on my educational and professional journey, I do realize just how fortunate I have been. In my decades of working in higher education in the United States, I have encountered many students who were brighter, more capable, and more motivated than I was at their age—students who have unnecessarily faced one seemingly insurmountable barrier after another when trying to pursue a college education. Despite the supposed paradigm shift from teaching to learning (Barr & Tagg, 1995), many university classes still depend on the dissemination of knowledge through textbooks and lectures and assessment via high-stakes objective examinations. These methods do not consider individual students’ strengths and challenges.

We can claim that we have moved beyond the medical model that views disability as a condition that needs to be cured, fixed, or mediated, to understanding disability as a social construction. At the same time, we endeavor to move forward to viewing disability from a social justice perspective (Evans, 2008); yet services for college students with disabilities are still dependent on a “diagnosis.” This assumes that there is something wrong with the student rather than with our educational systems. For faculty, UID promotes looking within ourselves—being more intentional and reflective—rather than putting the burden or “blame” on the individual student based on one aspect of the student’s complex social identity.

Accommodations as De Facto Segregation

When I transitioned from student affairs to a teaching role in 1985, my first position was as an assistant professor, counselor, and advisor in the Division of Developmental Studies at the University of Georgia, which at that time had a separate admissions process and served students who would not otherwise have been admitted. From my experience, a disproportionate number of students with disabilities—diagnosed or previously undiagnosed—are likely to be placed in developmental education courses because of the role that standardized testing plays in the admissions process, particularly at large, “selective” research institutions. As assistant professor, I followed up with both the student and the assigned advocate when receiving letters from Disability Services to request accommodations for individual students and I sincerely, but misguidedly, thought that I was doing everything I could to ensure their success.

Over time I realized that many of the proposed accommodations, such as extended time for exams, resulted in students being segregated from their peers. I was aware of the impact that being segregated in K-12 special education classes could have on how children were perceived by their peers, and ultimately how they would come to view themselves. Even without a diagnosis, I had experienced what it was like to be the slow reader, the “dummy,” and I understood why first-year college students did not readily disclose their disabilities (Uncertain Welcome, 2002). I also became aware of the high cost to students and their families of documenting “hidden” disabilities such as LDs, an expense that discriminated against less affluent students and put accommodations outside their reach.

Recent documentation of the disability diagnosis—even for students who had been receiving special education services throughout their elementary and secondary school experiences—was the necessary first legal step in the provision of accommodations, and many institutions were not equipped to provide their own diagnostic services. I began to explore other options for inclusion such as how to provide less distracting testing environments for students with Attention Deficit Disorder, but I was still approaching the task from the perspective of providing individualized accommodations to students who disclosed a documented disability, despite all the potential barriers to student success inherent in that process.

Reducing the Need for Accommodations through UID

In fall 1999 I transitioned to a new faculty position at the University of Minnesota, where I became immersed in Curriculum Transformation and Disability (CTAD; Higbee, 2003), a model demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide professional development in the implementation of UID. I had always considered myself student-centered, but my eyes were opened as I began to realize just how far I still had to go to achieve a fully accessible classroom. Such a classroom involved more than how furniture was placed in the classroom, or what technology was used in the teaching process. A primary goal of UID is to enable students to participate fully without the provision of accommodations that can mistakenly be perceived as “making exceptions” for student with disabilities. UID is not equivalent to the elimination of sign language interpreters, note takers, or textbooks in Braille, which I refer to as “structural accommodations.”

One of the common misunderstandings about UID is that the term universal as applied to education is not intended to imply that one size—or educational practice—fits all, but instead that universal access should be our goal. In fact, I like to characterize UID as giving all students the option to choose to learn in the manner that best accommodates their own ways of knowing, and also provides the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned through mechanisms that showcase their strengths, not their perceived deficiencies. No exceptions are being made because the same choices are being provided for everyone and everyone benefits. Furthermore, students engage in activities that may be more pertinent to their careers and future lives than multiple choice tests, for example.

Karen Myers asks, “Have you excluded anyone today?” In addition to first-year courses, I now teach graduate courses in multicultural pedagogy. I ask of future faculty, “Have you thoroughly examined your activities, assignments, and assessments to consider how an individual student might be excluded because of an aspect of that student’s social identity?” And after teaching, “Have you engaged in deep reflection of how your methods might marginalize some students while privileging others?”

Thoughts on the Future of UID

I acknowledge the many advantages I have had, including having a network of allies who opened doors for me when I might not have been able to open them for myself. I know many students who have not been so fortunate. I cannot claim to have known all students equally well—especially in large classes—to be aware of the challenges they may have faced. I do know that many students appreciate being able to learn in different and creative ways that accentuate their strengths and enhance their communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

At a point in my career when I might have started slowing down, I have been energized and have found new fulfillment as a faculty member through implementation of UID. Currently I am involved in the development of an expanded model, integrated multicultural instructional design (IMID) (Barajas & Higbee, 2003; Higbee & Barajas, 2007; Higbee, Goff, & Schultz, in press; Higbee, Schultz, & Goff, 2010). IMID picks up where UID leaves off, adding explorations of what we teach to the UID model that already addresses how we teach, how we support learning, and how we assess learning. There is always more work to be done in creating a culture of inclusion.

Discussion Questions

  • Have attitudes toward people with disabilities really changed over the last century, or do people—including professionals working in college student development—still look upon people with disabilities with pity?
  • Why might students hesitate to disclose a disability, whether to a faculty member or to a counselor, academic advisor, or residence hall staff member?
  • Recognizing that students do not necessarily disclose hidden disabilities—or other aspects of their social identities, for that matter—how can faculty and student development professionals ensure that all students are included and have equal opportunity to participate in programs and services? What are first steps you might take in your own position to enhance access and engagement?


Barajas, H. L., & Higbee, J. L. (2003). Where do we go from here? Universal design as a model for multicultural education. In J. L. Higbee (Ed.), Curriculum transformation and disability: Implementing Universal design in higher education (pp. 285-290). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, Retrieved from

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Evans, N. J. (2008). Theoretical foundations of universal instructional design. In J. L. Higbee & E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing Universal Design in higher education (pp. 11-23). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Higbee, J. L. (Ed.). (2003). Curriculum transformation and disability: Implementing Universal Design in higher education. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Higbee, J. L., & Barajas, H. L. (2007). Building effective places for multicultural learning. About Campus, 12(3), 16-22.

Higbee, J. L., Goff, E., & Schultz, J. L. (in press). Promoting retention through the implementation of integrated multicultural instructional design. Journal of College Student Retention.

Higbee, J. L., Schultz, J. L., & Goff, E. (2010). The pedagogy of inclusion: Integrated multicultural instructional design. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 41(1), 49-66.

Hodge, B. M., & Preston-Sabin, J. (1997). Accommodations—Or just good teaching? Strategies for teaching college students with disabilities. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Uncertain welcome

. (2002). Minneapolis, MN: Curriculum Transformation and Disability, General College, University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

About the Author

Jeanne Higbee, Ph.D., currently serves as Director of Graduate Studies for a new Master of Arts program in Multicultural College Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she is a recipient of the Horace T. Morse – University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education. ACPA has recognized her with the Voice of Inclusion Medallion (2005), Diamond Honoree (2007), and Disability Ally Award (2008).

Please e-mail inquiries to Jeanne Higbee.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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