Get More Traction for Your Awesome Universal Design for Learning Program, Part I

By Thomas J. Tobin

Meet Katie

Katie was, until recently, a university student.

Ever since she was little, Katie wanted to be an elementary-school teacher. When she was a first-semester junior, one of her professors came to me with a puzzle: “I have a student who I just know is cheating, but I can’t figure out how.”

The professor showed me one of Katie’s early papers. The writing was uneven, with few details, evidence, or examples to support ideas. Then the professor showed me Katie’s most recent work: a clear thesis, polished prose, and subordinate ideas and details—a great jump in quality.

I asked the professor why he wanted my input.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “I’ve run it through Turnitin, Googled parts of it, asked my colleagues if anything sounds familiar. Every way I try, this comes back as original. But it can’t be. So, I came to you.”

I started where I always do. I called Katie, and said “I work with faculty members on teaching practices. Your last essay was good work. Tell me how you’re doing it.”

Katie told me a very different story.

She confessed that she struggled in class ever since her freshman year. Katie understood what the professors were saying and what she wanted to say in response. When it came time to write, however, something didn’t connect.

She had gone to the university’s Learning Resources Center. When my colleagues in the LRC talked with Katie, she could express what she wanted. However, when they said, “key that into the computer,” or “write it out,” things didn’t come out the way Katie wanted them to.

Katie had never been diagnosed with anything. She didn’t have a piece of paper that said, “treat me differently.” Yet, after the people at the LRC taught Katie to use Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software, the quality of her writing went up—a lot. So much so, that her professor was convinced she was being dishonest.

What happened to Katie? When I met her, she was on academic probation, at risk for dropping out. Two years later, Katie graduated with a degree in elementary education. She is now a fifth-grade social-studies teacher in a school district outside Chicago. I felt honored to be a little part of Katie’s story.

Not the Real Story

I must apologize to you. Katie’s story of success despite a hidden challenge reinforces a common misconception about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Often, when we think about making interactions more accessible, we limit our thinking to people with physical disabilities. This is no accident.

UDL has its roots in Universal Design (UD) for the built environment, an advocacy effort for the access rights of people with physical challenges. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandated access for “physically handicapped persons” to buildings created or modified with federal funds. After many years of protests by people with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to mandate broader access to the built environment (US Department of Justice, 2016).

These days, more than 25 years since the ADA, we seldom think twice about the UD that surround us. Curb cuts accommodate not just wheelchairs, but bicycles, shopping carts, strollers, and rolling luggage. Wider doorways accommodate baby strollers, wheelchairs, and the kind friends helping you move your couch.

The fight for equal access rights to the built environment may be said to be largely won, thanks to the advocacy of people with disabilities and their allies. The end result has been to make the physical world more accessible for everyone—not only for people with disabilities.

It’s easy to see why UDL is associated in people’s minds with people with disabilities. So, why does UDL often summon negative associations for faculty members? We may be hard-wired to do so.

Emotional Valence and Accommodations

Most higher-education faculty members and staffers have worked on accommodation requests from students with disabilities. Few of us have received training about UDL (Lombardi & Murray, 2011). Our emotional response to UDL gets inflected with the valence from our experiences making disability accommodations. “Valence” is our emotional coloring for “events, objects, and situations. [T]hey may possess positive or negative valence; that is, they may possess intrinsic attractiveness or aversiveness…” (Frijda, 1986, p. 207).

We all know how faculty members should respond at the end of the second week of class to students with accommodation forms, saying, “I need time and a half on tests.” Of course, the answer should be “Sure, I’ll set that up.” This, thankfully, is how most people do respond. But how do faculty members actually feel about accommodation requests?

Researchers have been asking faculty members for decades about how they respond to students with learning challenges. In several large research studies, the emotional valence associated with accommodations is almost uniformly negative.

In many faculty members’ minds, the fact that one must accommodate learners with disabilities brings up feelings of uncertainty, confusion, annoyance, and even anger. Regardless of whether we act consciously on negative emotions, they ground our approach to learners with disabilities. In interviews with faculty members throughout North America, I hear similar feedback:

  • “I don’t have time to do all that work if it benefits just a few students with disabilities.”
  • “My institution doesn’t have a captioning service. I’d have to do it all myself, and I have a lot of videos.”
  • “I think at least a few of my students are trying to game the system by claiming to have disabilities.”
  • “I know I should follow the law, but no one at my institution is enforcing it.”
  • “I haven’t had a student with a disability for years. I will wait until I get an accommodation request.”

In fact, the contrary is so. Sam Johnston, a research scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), says that “we want a situation that is good for everybody. Part of it is thinking about what has to happen at the level of design that makes accommodation less necessary.” (personal communication, November 15, 2013). What Dr. Johnston means is that by adopting UDL principles in our course design, we greatly reduce the need for specific accommodation requests.

So, What Do We Do Next?

Our training programs and advocacy for adopting UDL stand poor chances due to the negative emotional valence associated with making disability accommodations—even though UDL is not a means of granting accommodations. UDL is an approach to the creation of learning experiences that incorporate multiple means of engaging with content and people, representing information, and expressing skills and knowledge.

We must first uncouple UDL from the negative emotional valence of people’s experiences with accommodation requests. For that, I propose two reframing statements:

  • our students today aren’t like our students 25 years ago, and
  • our faculty members aren’t like their counterparts from the past, either.

In my next post, I’ll explore how institutions can move forward in creating a shared respect for the UDL mindset.

This is the first post in a two-part series on Universal Design for Learning.

Thomas J. Tobin is an internationally-recognized speaker and author on topics related to quality in distance education, especially copyright, evaluation of teaching practice, academic integrity, and accessibility/universal design for learning. His latest book is Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices (Wiley, 2015) with B. Jean Mandernach and Ann H. Taylor. He is currently writing Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Re-Framing Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, expected from West Virginia University Press in late 2017. See for more information.

[1] (Fonosch & Schwab, 1981; Fichten, 1986; Nelson et al., 1990; Houck et al.,1992; Bento, 1996; Benham, 1997; Bigaj et al., 1999; Cook et al., 2009; Murray et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010; Lombardi & Murray, 2011; Murray et al., 2011),



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