Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016
Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)
Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.
Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.
Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?
I mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.
We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.
Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”
Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.
Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.
Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.
Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.
I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.
My First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]
Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:
What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.
- They engage a variety of senses.
- They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
- They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
- Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.
As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.
I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.
Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):
3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.
1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.
After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?
Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.