What is Universal Design?

The Center for Universal Design (University of North Carolina), charged with "a mission to improve the quality and availability of housing for people with disabilities," defines it 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." If our "products and environments" can be thought to be writing courses and the Web sites designed to be used with them, then the definition is quite apt. (The Center has compiled an illustrated list of seven Principles of Universal Design, which can be helpful to anyone setting up a product to be used by someone other than its creator.)

As David Rose explains ("Universal Design for Learning Associate Editor Column," JSET E-Journal, Vol. 15.1, Winter 2000), the difference between assistive technology and universal design is that the former focuses on an individual adapting to a rigid curriculum, while the latter focuses on curriculum designed from its inception to be flexible and inclusive.

Why Use Universal Design?

There are many practical reasons to embrace universal design (universal accessibility) as a concept when you plan your writing course and Web materials.

According to Webaim.org (Web Accessibility in Mind, Utah State University), "an estimated 20 percent of the population in the United States (40.8 million individuals) has some kind of disability, and 10 percent (27.3 million individuals) has a severe disability." It makes sense to expect some of them to show up in writing classes on campus and on the Web. Universal design can help assure that the information and communication opportunities students need is available to all of them. (In the physical world, ramps, automatic doors, and wide rest room stalls were intended to help people in wheelchairs, but they also benefited parents with children in strollers and other people carrying or transporting things around town.)

At its most basic level, Web accessibility is a civil rights issue. Depending on where you work, Web accessibility may be a requirement. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires access to the Federal government's electronic and information technology, (including information procured for Federal Web sites) on or after June 21, 2001. On the State level, as of February 2002, sixteen U.S. States had developed their own policies related to Web accessibility. For links to these policies, see State Policies Relating to Web Accessibility (from WAI). In New York State, for example, State agencies are required to provide persons with disabilities access to information on the Web that is equivalent to that available to persons without disabilities. (See Technology Policy 99-3 Universal Accessibility for New York State Web Sites.)

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) contains guidelines, techniques, training resources, and other information about the details of Web accessibility. Here are some commonly found items and some reasons for optimizing them for accessibility:

an example of a web page showing grahics with no alternative text--all you see are red X's.
Look familiar? Here's an example of part of a Web page using graphics across the top - a common design. This snapshot was taken while waiting for those graphics to load. They have no alternative text - all you see are red X's - so the visitor must wait until they load in order to select something to click on. Visually disabled visitors - or those who have turned off images in their browsers - will never know what these images might have contained.

It's usually easier to know about these issues before you've posted large numbers of inaccessible pages to a Web site. An example from the physical world might serve to illustrate this point.

A few years ago, a strip mall developer in a town in upstate New York deliberately crashed his front-loader into town hall. It seems the town officials had refused to grant him a certificate of occupancy for his tenants because the new sidewalk running in front of the mall was not "up to code." It was about twelve inches shy of width requirements for accessibility. Desperately needing to lease the space of the finished mall, he tried the front-loader approach. Luckily, no one was hurt, the developer paid his fine and damages, widened the sidewalk, and the mall opened.

Universal Design is a broader concept than Web accessibility, but Web accessibility is a necessary part of Universal Design. When you build (or enhance) your Web site, you can help bring your work to its full potential by making sure that your class materials are accessible. You help people blend in, you don't unintentionally keep people out, and you may spark students' brains by offering them an unexpected perspective.


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