Defining Universal Design
So what is universal design if it isn’t universal? And is it possible to mobilize this concept and its foundations to create learner-centered participation expectations, as Critel suggests? The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University characterizes universal design as the “design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Originally emerging in architecture in the 1990s, universal design has since been adapted to specific contexts beyond architecture, and a particular strand of inquiry called universal design for learning applies the framework to education. The three key principles of universal design for learning conceptualize an inclusive classroom environment and speak directly to a broader definition of participation: (1) present information and content in different ways, (2) differentiate the ways students can express what they know, and (3) stimulate interest and motivation for learning (CAST). The National Center On Universal Design for Learning provides this graphic representation of the principles of universal design for learning, with slightly different phrasing than I use above:
The chart shows that universal design for learning affects all aspects of teaching, and Nicholas Rattray and his coauthors emphasize that it extends to “the usability of instructional materials…learning outcomes, and the attitudes in the social environment.” Although this chart makes the implementation of universal design more concrete, ultimately, the needs of individual students or a particular class dictate design. As Critel emphasizes, under a universal design framework students with different needs, abilities, and experiences are integral to the processes of designing, redesigning, and transforming the institutional structures and material realities that might exclude them (Brueggemann et al.).