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Universal Design

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Paradigm shift

There are several reasons why Universal Design is the model most Higher Education Disability service providers in North America are turning to. These include the need to manage resources of rapidly expanding service demands, building a more sustainable model of service provision, responding to the increasing complexity and diversity of diagnostic labels, its use of inclusive practices, and its foundation on a social model of disability.


Resource management

Graph showing sharp increase in numbers of OSD registered students

Resource Management is an imperative all Disability service providers are having to address proactively.  With the number of users exploding in an unprecedented way, the traditional “accommodation approach” begins to be inadequate.  The image below indicates the change in demographics at the OSD in recent years.  This pattern is characteristic of the change experienced by most post-secondary institutions.


Sustainable Approach

The traditional “accommodations” approach to disability is an ad hoc process of retrofitting, repeated each semester, for each course, for each individual student making a request.  The process in itself is a non-renewable use of resources and does not conform to McGill’s objectives in terms of sustainable development (Vision 2020).  Universal Design, by focusing on modification to the environment, constitutes a sustainable approach to the management of the diverse needs of learners.


Complexity and diversity of diagnostic labels

Pie chart showing categories of disability (Mental Health largest)

The complexity and diversity of diagnostic labels makes “retrofitting” in the traditional way somewhat obsolete. Disabilities are increasingly varied and often “invisible” (Mental health issues, Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, AD/HD). The assumption therefore that a Disability service provider unit might have the “answers” when addressing access to learning has had to be revisited. The pie chart below indicates the variety of conditions recorded in the OSD’s user base in 2010/11.


Inclusive Practices

Most students reaching Higher Education have benefited from inclusive practices throughout their secondary education.  The students have clear expectations with regards to inclusion.  The idea of self-identifying, disclosing a diagnosis or requesting services outside of the class is foreign and unappealing to them.  The Universal Design Model enables Higher Ed campuses to meet the inclusion expectations of the millennium learner.


Social Model

The clinical lens is less and less applied to the Disabilities field.  The social model is increasingly the framework adopted when addressing access.  Within this perspective, a distinction is made between impairment which is a characteristic of the individual and a disabling situation which is the result of poor planning or inadequate design.  For a more detailed explanation of the distinction between impairment and Disability, we recommend a short video which explains the social model in a nutshell.

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Judith Butler - Examined Life

General principles of Universal Design

Universal Design is sustainable, environment focused model for the management of disability issues, which translates the social model into practice.  It is therefore a framework which is increasingly appealing as it allows for legal imperatives surrounding access to be addressed in relation to all learners.  Design and conception are the focus, rather than the individual or any specific impairment.  Universal Design is originally and historically an architectural framework which emerged when architects became frustrated in the 70s by the ovewhelming focus on aesthetics at the detriment of user friendliness.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching approach which considers how curriculum, instruction and assessment can meet the learning needs of the greatest number and diversity of students while maintaining academic rigour. UDL encourages multiple means of representation, expression and engagement at all levels of the course; be it instruction, resources or evaluation.  Our faculty page has more information specific to UD in the classroom.

 Engagement, Representation and Expression in 3 columns

Copyright CAST 2008

For a full text version click here

Exploring Universal Design

If you wish to learn more about the social model of Disability and Universal Design, and how they can be more specifically applied to the campus environment, several options are available to you: (i) we offer a UD workshop for students; (ii) SEDE/TLS workshops (Disability, Access and Universal Design) are available to McGill employee and Graduate Students, (iii) tailor-made workshops are available to faculty on request.