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Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space

by Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers

Table of Contents


The philosophy of universal design and its principles can help generate multi-modal intellectual pathways to writing pedagogies. As teachers and students put elements of their writing classrooms and studies online, everyone benefits from the site owner's understanding and application of the principles of universal design. This article will examine those principles, why and how to take advantage of the concept of universal design in a writing class and on the Web, and suggest some technology tools to use. We will discuss:

Answers to these question vary from class to class and project to project. It is asking of the questions that's important - before designing the syllabus and any associated Web site.


Many people think of writing classrooms or Web pages as spaces that must be retrofitted to accommodate the disabled. We argue instead for the broader view of "normal" that is part of the philosophy behind universal design. For example, how can we design Websites, from the ground up, to make them more accessible to more people, and to emerging technologies such as personal digital assistants (PDA's) and cell phones? How can we change our assumptions so that we can imagine writing pedagogies that provide more options for everyone? Using the concept of universal design, we propose multi-modal, yet simple, remedies for the particular medium, whether a classroom, a Web page, or a combination.

We suggest how the teaching of writing can be enhanced by a philosophical commitment to the principles of universal design ,which has inclusion as its governing assumption. As Roberta Null and Kenneth Cherry explain in their book, Universal Design: Creative Solutions for ADA Compliance, this architecture-related concept underpins a commitment to making "the built world - its interiors, exteriors, products, and furnishings - so that it will be usable for all people" (ix). Significantly, this commitment to usability governs the design of a building and its furnishings from its conception. What makes the interiors or exteriors accessible is not retrofitted but built in, imagined and designed from the beginning to be accessible.

We can adopt these principles of universal design from architecture and use them to re-structure writing pedagogies that are, from the first day of class, more flexible, more inclusive, and more challenging. In a way, universal design helps us see text-only pedagogies as "disabled," not those individuals who don't happen to use writing-as-a-mode-of-learning in the same way their English teachers do. Universal design helps us imagine writing pedagogies that tap into various people's talents in debate, dialogue, visualization, drawing, and movement - all of which can be used to invent, organize, and revise conventional texts.

Today, conventional writing classroom practices rely heavily on written words. We encourage our students to write multiple drafts, to freewrite, to keep journals, to react in writing to readings, to write to each other, to write on listservs and Web boards. These stimulants to thinking help all of us explore ideas, revisit them, and link them to other ideas.

However, writing involves many complex intellectual processes that can be stimulated through activities beyond the act of physically writing. Drafting, rethinking, and revising a text sometimes involves synthesizing material and analyzing it. It always involves making rhetorical judgments about intended forum, audience, purpose, ethos, etc. While writing itself has been used successfully as an invention strategy to help people do those intellectual tasks, writing-as-a-mode-of-learning does not work equally well for all people.

In contrast, a writing pedagogy based on universal design concepts would offer more flexible, multi-modal choices in how that synthesis, analysis, and rhetorical judgment might take place. For example, a visual talent such as sketching can be used as an invention strategy to create and revise a text. Speech, drama, movement, listening and social skills can all contribute to the reconceptualizations of ideas that helps writers re-think, reshape, and revise their work.

Physically writing or word-processing text is only one way to accomplish the generation and manipulation of ideas that writing involves. To design writing pedagogies informed by principles of universal design, we need to think of writing not only as product and process, but as a broad set of invention activities.

In other words, to "write" is to use whatever activities we and our students can think of to stimulate ideas, frame concepts, make connections, formulate critiques, and then re-envision all of the above in revising. Universal design in writing pedagogy means using a variety of visual, aural, spatial, and kinesthetic approaches to tap into the intellectual chaos that goes into writing in the physical, literal sense. The hardest part of designing more flexible writing pedagogies is climbing out of our own text-comfortable cocoons - the writing-as-learning blankets we've had draped around us for so long. We can still keep our blankets. They continue to serve us well. But it's time for some spring clothes.


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