10 January 2010

Universal Design

In most public school classrooms in the US, it isn't unusual to have at least one student on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 Plan. These plans identify accommodations for students with one or more disabilities so that they may fully participate in the educational program offered at the school. Over the years, I've learned a lot about how to adjust curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the classroom for students with these plans---but I have to admit that until recently, I hadn't thought about accessibility on a large scale. In many circles (both inside and outside of education), the term Universal Design is used to refer to "solutions...that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities."

What are the costs and benefits of using technology to achieve Universal Design?

As our state moves to a testing model that is computer-based, some have pointed out that there are great possibilities for Universal Design. It is relatively simple for all students (not just those who are blind or have reading disabilities) to plug in headphones and listen to the test. Although not currently under discussion, color options for text/graphics, the ability to magnify text, layout of questions to encourage focus, are all examples of ways we could change the testing experience for students. (I thought this idea on color-coding for the color blind was intriguing, and believe the symbols would be useful for nearly all students.) It doesn't change the content or structure of the test---only the way it can be presented.

I have already had several inquiries from the special education community in our state about our upcoming technology assessments. And why not? They have not always been included with the conversations, perhaps due to the view that students' IEPs could cover any accommodations as opposed to the test itself being flexible. I cannot guarantee that we will develop assessments that can be used by every possible group, but I will guarantee that Universal Design will be a consideration throughout the process.

With the possibilities that come with technology, there are also costs to consider. One of the most interesting articles I've run across in this regard was in the New York Times this week. It asks, "With New Technologies, Do Blind People Lose More Than They Gain?" The article is centered around the illiteracy developing in the blind because Braille is no longer as necessary as it once was. When you can have a computer read all your text, why learn to read yourself? Beyond that is an interesting cultural commentary from within the blind community as to those "elite" who use Braille vs. those who don't (and tend to suffer economically).

This makes me wonder about other possible pitfalls to increasing access and where the balance is. In our zeal to design universally, are we neglecting other considerations along the way?

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