Creating a Culture of Inclusive Leadership: The Intersection of Student Affairs and Universal Design

Creating a Culture of Inclusive Leadership: The Intersection of Student Affairs and Universal Design

Jaci Jenkins Lindburg
University of Nebraska-Omaha

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. 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 student affairs professional.

As a student affairs professional, I have the opportunity to mentor and advise student leaders who are frequently impressionable young people full of vast potential and seemingly limitless capabilities. During their undergraduate experiences, student leaders are exposed to many things, including different religious and cultural ideologies, lifestyles, ways of thinking different from their own, and political viewpoints and values that may vary greatly from those of their parents or guardians. As student development theorists describe, it is not uncommon for college-age students to challenge many of the beliefs they previously held to be true as they open up to uncertain and ambiguous possibilities for their futures (Josselson, 1987; King & Kitchener, 1994).

As many students seek to find clarity in their own identity, the academic discussions and co-curricular programs an institution offers play a critical role in exposing students to new knowledge that can either affirm or change previously held beliefs. Thus, during this impressionable time for students, creating a dialogue relating to concepts of social justice, inclusion, and access is paramount; for example, through the co-curricular leadership programs I coordinate, I recognize the importance of appropriately shaping the next generation of leaders. I want these leaders to truly understand how important it is to be inclusive of all types of people. I strive to help students find their passion in life and to not be afraid to advocate for fairness in the world. But above all, I want students to be aware of the social injustices that exist and learn how they can play a role in creating positive change. In order to achieve these goals, I integrate the concepts of Universal Design into my leadership development work.

In this article, I will explain the central concepts of Universal Design and relate its principles to student leadership and student affairs. In addition, I will provide support for creating an institutional-wide culture of inclusion that starts with senior administrators and is embraced by faculty, staff, and students. Finally, I will encourage readers to take steps that will help their own institutions implement and incorporate Universal Design in programs and initiatives across campus.

Universal Design (UD) and Universal Instructional Design (UID)

A great first step toward enhancing social justice, advocating for change, and striving for inclusion is to improve accessibility of resources and services for all students on campus. The concept of open access closely relates to the idea of Universal Design. Universal Design was originally an architectural concept focusing on ways to plan and design spaces to meet the needs of all potential users; however, Universal Design has more recently been extended to the educational sector, where it supports the notion that “when providing an architectural feature— or educational service, for that matter—to enhance accessibility and inclusion for one population, we are often benefiting all occupants or participants” (Goff & Higbee, 2008a, p. 1). In its extension to the educational sector, Universal Instructional Design (UID) focuses on universal access to course content, seeks to ensure that no students are excluded or marginalized, and reduces the need for individualized academic accommodations (Goff & Higbee).

In a formal classroom setting, UID can be ensured by posting all course readings and web links online, using a sans-serif 14-point font on all handouts, utilizing multi-modal teaching techniques, and offering students multiple avenues to demonstrate learned knowledge. But in the more informal settings in which student affairs professionals typically interact with students, UID is not always as straightforward: we must re-think commonplace practices, such as campus tours, student meeting spaces, student teambuilding activities, and the communication practices we use to promote all campus programs, meetings, and events.

To make a diligent commitment to UID as a student affairs practitioner, Myers (2009) suggested asking yourself, “Who have I excluded today?” Similarly, Higbee (2008) suggested asking the following questions whenever engaging in the planning of campus events and services:

  • “How can we ensure that everyone who wants to participate will have the opportunity to do so?
  • What steps can we take to ensure that everyone will feel included?
  • What do we need to do to ensure that everyone will benefit to the greatest extent possible?” (p. 200)

Students with disabilities are frequently excluded, even if done so unintentionally. Each year, an increasing number of students with disabilities enter postsecondary institutions in the United States (Lehmann, Davies, & Laurin, 2000). In the academic year 2008-2009, approximately 707,000 students with disabilities were enrolled in post-secondary institutions in the United States (Raue & Lewis, 2011). Students with disabilities experience exclusion when they encounter physical, intellectual, or attitudinal barriers in higher education. Higbee (2008) stated that “These barriers to learning must be assessed, examined, and removed wherever possible” (p. 197). Furthermore, Denny and Carson (as cited in Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2008) posited that even if members of the campus community “do not see themselves as having social barriers or discriminatory attitudes towards students with disabilities, social distance, avoidance, and lack of foresight in planning can lead students with disabilities to perceive barriers from them” (as cited in Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2008, p. 261). Minimal efforts such as having posters in large font, making newsletters available in alternative formats, or moving meeting locations to accessible buildings and rooms demonstrates regard and recognition for each individual.

Student Leaders and UID

Not only is it important to model best practices of UID in our work as professionals on campus, but it is also important to advise student leaders to incorporate UID within their leadership roles in campus groups, organizations, and teams. One way student leaders can immediately have an impact on campus is to promote open access to all other students. Many student groups unknowingly exclude other students simply by the way in which promote their organization and where they hold group meetings.

Higbee (2008) offered several Universal Design guiding principles to help student leaders focus on enhancing accessibility. First, “develop, implement, and evaluate pathways for communication among students. Communication should be encouraged through methods that are appropriate, comfortable, and accessible to all, with appropriate accommodations readily available” (p. 196). Second, “promote interaction among students. Once channels for communication have been established, the next step is to encourage their use. Why? These interactions lead to students feeling a sense of connection to the institution and foster the belief that someone cares about them” (p. 197). Third, “Ensure that each student has an equal opportunity to learn and grow” (p. 197).

Consider the following example of how student affairs professionals are putting those principles into practice. Staff working on the Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation (PASS IT) project at the University of Minnesota issued a guidebook that featured a student checklist for community awareness of UID. By adhering to the points on this checklist, “students can make a difference in the university community with regard to accessibility for all individuals regardless of learning style, background, culture, age, language, and ability” (Goff & Higbee, 2008b, p. 47). Key points of the checklist are:

  1. Promote an inclusive community grounded in the concepts of Universal Instructional Design and Social Justice.
    1. Share cultural experiences and seek out opportunities to learn about diversity through the perceptions of other students.
    2. Question events and programs that do not promote inclusion in a professional and appropriate manner.
  2. Plan and develop accessible programs and events that welcome all students.
    1. Ensure that event, program, and meeting locations allow all students to engage and socialize equally.
    2. Support written announcements and posters with audio versions.
  3. Promote Web site, online registration and surveys and other web-based student information sites that are accessible for all students.
    1. Multi-media: Provide captioning and transcripts of audio and descriptions of video.
    2. Tables: Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize. (Goff & Higbee, 2008b, p. 47)

Student leaders can easily learn key points for Universal Design and Universal Instruction Design if student affairs practitioners model Higbee’s (2008) principles through our work and if we take the time to stress the importance of inclusion within the roles student leaders take within student organizations. Throughout the collegiate student experience, student leaders should learn these valuable tools that promote to inclusion and welcoming environments. As Cullen (2008) noted, “To build inclusive organizations, there must be a shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’” (p. 117). I believe UID is an outstanding avenue to push our students toward social justice on their home campuses.

Creating a Culture of Inclusive Leadership

Gibson (2005) developed a Disability Identity Development Model in an effort to help practitioners and educators understand better the development of people with disabilities. Gibson (2005) posited that understanding a person’s development is necessary for practitioners and educators to support the person fully. Gibson (2005) outlined three stages of disability identity development. Stage one, called “passive awareness” typically happens during the first part of someone’s life, but can continue into adulthood. This phase is marked by a denial of the social aspects of disability, shying away from attention, and lacking a role model of disability. Phase two, called “realization” typically occurs in adolescence or early adulthood and is demonstrated through a high degree of concern with appearance and how others perceive self. Stage1 three, called “acceptance,” typically emerges in adulthood and shifts the focus from being different toward embracing oneself. The “acceptance” phase also is marked by involvement in disability advocacy and activism and the beginning of incorporating others with disabilities into one’s life (Gibson, 2005).

In creating inclusive campus environments, I argue that an entire institution moves through a similar process of learning and become aware and accepting of students with disabilities as the three-stage model presented by Gibson (2005). Students easily adopt the ideals and values that faculty, staff, and administrators demonstrate on a conscious or subconscious level. If upper-level employees of an institution are merely passively aware of disability—meaning that they do not utilize UID, they do not creative inclusive environments, and they do not advocate for the needs of all students—then it becomes easy for students of that institution to take the same approach and fail to be inclusive.

If administrators are in the second “realization” phase and have a heightened sense of awareness about students with disabilities, the culture of the entire institution begins to shift. But it is not until the institution’s faculty, staff, and administrators truly embody the stage three “acceptance” that the members of the campus community will begin to embrace concepts of acceptance, universal design, and inclusive leadership. As Myers (2008) questioned, “When do thoughts of inclusion become second nature?” (p. 291). At an institutional level, I believe that moment occurs when we move to stage three, “acceptance,” and incorporate Universal Design and Universal Instructional Design into our courses, co-curricular programs, office designs, campus layouts, and residential hall facilities. I believe wholeheartedly that student leaders are ready for the challenge, but we have to push them to learn and develop a skill set that includes UID, access, and inclusion.

Call to Action

There should be nothing stopping student affairs professionals from creating inclusive campus climates. I believe our student leaders are ready to embrace the culture of a universally-designed institution if our faculty, staff, and administrators place accessibility as a priority. As noted leadership researchers Bennis and Thomas (2007) described, a key to effective leadership is the ability to create shared meaning amongst a group of people: “A leader’s first and, in many ways, most important task is articulating their vision and making it their followers’ own…effective leaders don’t just impose their vision on others, they recruit others to a shared vision” (Bennis & Thomas, 2007, p. 137).

Regardless of your role and level of responsibility at the institution, I encourage you to utilize concepts of Universal Instructional Design in your day-to-day programs, events, classes, and physical spaces. Talk to your student leaders about what it means to be inclusive in their roles on campus, role-model best practices for these student leaders to follow, and do your part in creating this shared meaning regarding UD/UID. Incorporating Universal Instructional Design strategies can and will enhance accessibility and inclusion on campus, but only if we take the time and make the effort to use it in our daily practices.

Discussion Questions

  • How is your campus currently using Universal Design strategies within student leadership programs and student affairs?
  • What obstacles and/or difficulties do you foresee in implementing Universal Design principles and practices into your student affairs programs and initiatives?
  • What resources or tools would you need to help create an institution-wide commitment to Universal Design?
  • In what ways do you role model inclusion and accessibility to the students you work with each day and how can you help these students begin to use principles of Universal Design in their own outreach as student leaders?


1. The theory uses “phases” and “stages” interchangeably.


Bennis, W.G., & Thomas, R.J. (2007). Leading for a lifetime. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Cullen, M. (2008). 35 dumb things well-intended people say. Garden City, NY: Morgan James Publishing.

Gibson, J. (2006). Disability and clinical competency: An introduction. The California Psychologist, 39, 6-10.

Goff, E., & Higbee, J.S. (2008a). Introduction. In J.L. Higbee and E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education (pp. 1-8). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Goff, E., & Higbee, J.S. (Eds.). (2008b). Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementation guidebook for student development programs and services.Minneapolis: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.

Higbee, J.S. (2008). Universal design principles for student development programs and services. In J.L. Higbee and E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education (pp. 195-203). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Josselson, R. (1987). Finding herself; Pathways to identity development in women. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, P.M., & Kitchener, K.S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lehmann, J.P., Davies, T.G., & Laurin, K.M. (2000). Listening to student voices about postsecondary education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 32(5), 60-65.

Myers, K.A. (2008). Using learning reconsidered to reinvent disability education. About Campus, 13, 2-9.

Myers, K.A. (2009). A new vision for disability education: Moving on from the add-on. About Campus, 14(5), 15-21.

Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with Disabilities at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions (NCES 2011–018). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wisbey, M.E., & Kalivoda, K.S. (2008). Residential living for all: Fully accessible and ‘liveable’ on-campus housing. In J.L. Higbee and E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education (pp. 255- 266). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

About the Author

Jaci Jenkins Lindburg, PhD, is the Manager of Academic Affairs for the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She earned her PhD in Higher Education Administration from Saint Louis University in 2010 and has previously served as the Director for Student Development and Leadership at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, and as the Associate Director of the Leadership Institute at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. She has been recognized by ACPA as a 2012 Annuit Coeptis Emerging Professional, the 2011 Standing Committee for Graduate Students and New Professionals Outstanding New Professional, and the 2010 Disability Ally Award Recipient.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jaci Jenkins Lindburg.


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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