University for all toolkit

Front cover of Unlocking Inclusion: Toolkit for Universal Design in Higher Education. The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been around for a long time. UDL is not a special type of teaching method for certain groups. The principles are applicable to teaching and learning across schools, universities and workplace training. A group in Ireland has devised a university-for-all toolkit to show how to do it. 

The Toolkit is designed for university leaders, faculty members, and professional and administrative staff. By moving the focus away from deficits, universal design shifts the focus to proactive inclusive design.

The aim of the guide is to show how Universal Design for Learning can transform institutions into inclusive learning places. Using examples of good practice from both national and international institutions, it brings together universal design expertise from around the world.

The Toolkit includes self assessment activities and case studies. It covers institutional foundations such as leadership, approaches to access and inclusion and strategic planning. The four pillars of universal design for learning in higher education are explained in detail. Briefly they are: 

Adults seated at tables in a classroom setting looking forward to the instructor at the front of the room. university for all.

  1. Learning, teaching and assessment, curriculum review.
  2. Student supports, services and social engagement, library services
  3. Physical campus and built environment, challenges and solutions
  4. Digital environment, websites, social media platforms

The title of the publication is, Unlocking Inclusion: Toolkit for Universal Design in Higher Education. 

Additional information about the online training program and how to make the training and the toolkit suited for other nations.

The 2 minute video below provides an overview of the purpose of the Toolkit. 


Pillars of neurodiversity in learning

Claire O’Neill from the University College of Cork uses the UN Sustainable Development Goals to underpin her work on the ENGAGE Programme. SDG Goal 4 is about inclusive and equitable education to promote lifelong learning. She explains how she used it to design the Programme for neurodivergent adult learners.

Infographic showing the 4 pillars of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity occurs naturally. No neurotype is better than another. Neurodiversity operates like other dimensions of equality and diversity. There is a collective value and strength in diversity.

Image from the Engage Programme in the AHEAD journal.

The 4 Pillars of Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity occurs naturally. No neurotype is better than another. Neurodiversity operates like other dimensions of equality and diversity. There is a collective value and strength in diversity.

The Programme is influenced by the three principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Briefly, they are about providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. In essence, the why, what and how of learning that motivates learners and gives them access to knowledge.

The ENGAGE is an acronym for each workshop within the programme’s framework and builds on the UDL concepts. The programme was developed with autistic adults and the Thriving Autistic and Galway Autism Partnership. The aim is to be a safe, inclusive and equitable way for neurodivergent adults to learn.

Participants were highly satisfied with the programme because of the neurodiversity-affirmative approach and the spirit of collaboration. They also appreciated the online environment and spirit of co-operation.

The title of the article is, The ENGAGE Programme – Creating an Online Inclusive and Equitable Learning Environment for Neurodivergent Adults. It is published by the AHEAD journal.

Higher education: digital equity and autism

A view of Griffith University building which is new and about seven storeys high. Digital equity and autism.Beware the diagnosis – it leads to stereotypes and misplaced assumptions. This was one of the findings from a research project at Griffith University on digital equity. A common assumption is that people with autism find it difficult or stressful in social situations. For example, university discussion groups and making presentations. An assumption that follows is online learning would be their preferred learning method. Turns out this is not the case.

Digital equity for everyone

All students had difficulty with online content for three key reasons:

    1. Students had problems identifying which parts of the online content were most important.
    2. They needed clarification of content by instructors to aid their online learning
    3. Students found it helpful when the instructor communicated links between content across the weeks or modules. 

So, the diagnosis is not the person. The research paper includes a literature review and a survey of students who identified as having autism. It has much useful information regarding the design of teaching and learning. The major point is that what’s good for students with autism is good for everyone. 

The title of the study is, “Online learning for university students on the autism spectrum: A systematic review and questionnaire study”. It was published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology – special issue: Digital Equity. It’s open access.

From the abstract

Online course delivery must consider the equity of the learning experience for all students. Online delivery may reduce challenges and stressors present in face-to-face delivery and promote student learning for specific student groups including autism. However, the experience of learning online for autistic students is largely unknown.

Findings from two studies identified that the online environment provided both facilitators of and barriers to the learning experience for autistic students. The way design factors are employed in online delivery can create barriers to the learning experience.   

Inclusive practice in higher education

The 2016 Journal of Inclusive Practice in Further and Higher Education includes papers from the International Conference. All articles include the concept of universal design in learning with a focus on neurodiversity.  It covers methods and research in higher education and transition to work.

Contributions to this journal encourage emancipatory methods with neurodiverse people, particularly involving their personal experiences.  The Journal is published in Word format making it widely accessible.

The papers cover a diversity of topics such as academic access for diverse learners, thinking and practicing differently, experiences of staff, links between perceptual talent and dyslexia, and modification of exam papers. 

Accessibility Statements for schools

Accessibility statements are appearing in the tourism sector, so is it time to have accessibility statements for schools and universities? Well, why not ask staff and students? That’s just what two educational researchers did in the UK.

Teaching materials were checked for accessibility including digital media. Classroom delivered lectures came out best. The pandemic forced improvements for accessible online material.

Teacher and students are in black silhouette looking at a board with an mathematical equation for physics. Accessibility statement for schools.

The research on the accessibility statements was carried out at the University of Birmingham.

Captioning videos turned out to be a problem for staff because the microphones didn’t always work in the lecture rooms. This led to a lot of time being spent on re-doing captions. Some staff preferred to wait until they were asked for special interventions rather than do them automatically. However, the aim should be to remove barriers before someone finds them.

Students were given the opportunity to comment on the accessibility statements as they were being devised. However, no comments were received. Once published they were circulated by email and received positive comments. Many thought it was good for the school to provide these and that they were well thought out and clear. Some students felt the same as some staff – wait until someone needs the extra access features.

The researchers countered the reactive approach by saying that in the long run, making everything accessible saves time and prevents barriers and negative attitudes. As other research has shown, not everyone is keen to disclose a hidden disability. This is in line with the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

From the conclusions

“Creating School-level statements allows a Department to demonstrate how accessibility is embedded in their teaching philosophy. Over time, this willingness to be demonstrably open and to proactively address differences among students can hopefully boost student recruitment.

“We found that misunderstandings still exist and they tend to weaken efforts to enhance accessibility in teaching and learning. For instance, some staff believe that accessibility only concerns individuals with specific learning needs. Or that student concerns should only
be acted upon when they request support or particular adjustments.

Next steps involve focusing on raising awareness of accessibility statements across the School communities and providing extra staff training.

An easy to read paper that highlights the need for accessibility statements as a given rather than an exception across all educational institutions. The title of the paper is, Example of practice: Accessibility statements for inclusive education.

From the abstract

This paper provides an example of practice that outlines the benefits and challenges of creating School or Department level accessibility statements. Like all methods of improving accessibility, there is no one-size-fits-all statement. Through demonstrating one possibility, we show how to create an accessibility statement.

The discussion is informed by the results of a staff and student evaluation of accessibility statements issued by two Schools at the University of Birmingham. These Schools issued accessibility statements to show their commitment to accessibility. They created open dialogue around students’ varying requirements, and explained the accessibility features/limitations of their teaching and learning resources.

Architectural education and gender equality

The Rethinking the Future blog site has an article on architectural education and gender equality. First, it asks if architecture is gender driven both as a profession and in academia. Second, it asks if the diverse experience of students is really fostering and representing diversity. The third point is, how can a more inclusive learning environment be created. The article concludes with a plea for change.

“Analysing the traditional architectural education system, one can observe the persistence of a masculine Paradigm.”

Three men in hard hats stand on a building site looking at architectural design plans.

The word “architect” conjures up an image of a man so that if a woman is an architect she is referred to as a female architect, not just “architect”. However, moves to address this gender imbalance is being addressed as more women are accepted into architectural institutions. But how many female star architects are there?

Fostering student diversity

Analysing enrolment data for gender ratios helps identify any significant disparities amongst different countries. The visibility and experience of LGBTIQ students in architecture schools can be carried out through surveys or interviews. Social, political and psychological aspects can be revealed by identifying unique challenges students with multiple marginalised identities face. These can be race, ethnicity, religion, and gender diversity.

Faculty and curriculum

Faculty members should move beyond traditional teaching methods by adopting methods to cater for diverse learning styles. Creating an equitable education experience will bring more diversity within learner enrollments and future teaching staff. With a diversity of ideas and mentors there is a better chance of including the LGBTI community and women.

The title of the blog article is Architectural education and gender equality: A comparative study.

UDL at The University of Sydney

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a well established concept, but implementation remains at the edges of teaching. A large body of literature researching how to do it is useful but many education systems still treat it as “special” learning especially in schools. But there is some movement on UDL at The University of Sydney.

UDL follows the same concept of universal design found in other disciplines. It is about creating inclusive learning environments, tools, and activities. And in the same way that universal design benefits everyone, UDL does the same.

Two pairs of women sit at a table with paper and pens. One of the pair looks to be explaining something to the other.

There seems to be a little more progress for UDL in higher education where students are adults rather than children. The right to an education becomes more evident at this level and UDL is a good way to create inclusive leaning for everyone. But it does require a change in mindset.

The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) is a good resource for the tertiary education sector. Their one hour webinar on implementing UDL at The University of Sydney tells an interesting story.

Presenter, Sarah Humphreys, introduces the significance of UDL and how she established a pilot project in 2021 at the University of Sydney. The pilot, “Designing for Diversity” focused on one academic and one unit of study. Part of the process was developing relationships with stakeholders to find a common language to support a shift in mindset.

Sarah Humphries provides examples of the evaluation processes to illustrate how the iterative process worked and generated resources. The UDL is still in its early phase because the focus is not to prescribe or standardise how UDL is used. It is more about a cultural change over time.

The title of the ADCET webinar is, Implementing Universal Design for Learning at the University of Sydney – Lessons Learned and Scaling Strategies. It is available on the ADCET website or on YouTube below.

Research in clear language

The Plain Language Movement is supported by information makers and providers who want more people to read their content. Dense academic language meant for other academics is frustrating for others wanting to learn more. So, it is time for clear language now that more universities are producing open access articles.

“… the plain language movement is rooted in the ideal of an inclusive society… ” Language is not for those with social privilege.

An empty page in a notebook with a pencil and sharpener. Doing plain language is a process

Plain language summaries are a good start and sometimes a requirement of research funding. These summaries are often shown as four or five short bullet points before the academic abstract. And now we have a new acronym: Knowledge Mobilization (KMb). The requirement for plain language summaries has given rise to yet another area of research.

Sasha Gaylie at the University of British Columbia explains more about this in her article Clear Language Description. There is a little confusion whether plain language and clear language are the same things. Consequently, there is a move to create an international standard.

The International Plain Language Federation defines plain language as “wording, structure, and design are so clear that readers can easily find what they need”. Easy Read, Easy English or Easy Language, which is for a specific group of readers, is not the same thing. It’s good to see universal design in language as a relatively new frontier in inclusive practice.

Gaylie lists five focus areas for that offer a structure for grouping individual recommendations briefly listed here:

  • Audience: The benchmark is 8th grade reading level.
  • Structure: The most important information should appear first.
  • Design: White space and headers to break up text, and also helps screen readers.
  • Expression: Use an active voice and avoid jargon.
  • Evaluation: Peer review by a non-expert for best feedback.
A blank page of a spiral notebook and and fountain pen.

Inclusive descriptions

This is a growing area of language. Words can hurt and harm. We already see how language has changed when we look at old texts. For example the use of “man” and “he” when meaning all humans.

“A term need not be intentionally harmful to cause harm; the act of description is not neutral, and even when using the “plainest” of language, inherent bias affects output.”

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalities

Sasha Gaylie’s article concludes with a practical guide based on the five focus pointed mentioned earlier.

From the Editor: Writing in plain language is a skill-set that challenges a writer to think really carefully about what they want the reader to know. It is not about what the writer wants to say. Doing plain language is a process. Writing complex ideas in a straightforward way takes time and effort. And it also makes me think about my relationship to the topic.

Law schools and universal design

Aerial view of a large public library with long desks around a central console. Law schools teach law and introduce the values that students take into the legal profession. Unless law schools embrace universal design, they will continue to be inequitable and pose barriers to people who might be good lawyers. This is the basis of an article by Matthew Timko where he says the place to introduce universal design is through law libraries.

Timko says the law library is the ideal testing ground for changes that assist student comprehension and testing. Beginning with the library services, the value of universal design will gradually become apparent to all stakeholders. From there it will enter the legal academy, legal education process and legal profession.

Timko uses the 7 Principles of Universal design as the framework for his proposition. This shows how flexibly the principles can be applied. He then discusses the role of disability legislation in the United States and the supports available. 

Photo of the sign on the grey stone building of The Royal Courts of Justice. Ethical and professional standards provide another opportunity to support individuals. Timko argues that most accommodations pose menial burdens on institutions but provide great benefit to individuals. However, they need to be provided as a general rule, not just when they are asked for. This is the underlying tenet of universal design for learning. 

The article goes into more detail about the role of legislation and how it should apply to law schools. In the conclusion, Timko states:

“Universal design offers the key to not only increased access to legal education and legal knowledge but also a more fundamental shift in the perceptions and thinking that have plagued disability laws and design habits over the last 30 years.”

The types of universal design features discussed can be introduced into the law library gradually and in cost-effective ways. 

The title of the article is, Applying Universal Design in the Legal Academy

From the editor

I was invited to participate in a question and answer interview for the Law Society Journal with Features Editor, Avril Janks. I was encouraged to find that universal design has entered the realms of the legal profession and happy to participate. 

We discussed universal design broadly and then how it might be implemented in legal workplaces. Universal design can be applied to the office design, office systems, and employment practice. So plenty of scope for the profession to be more inclusive. If you want to read the article published in the March 2023 edition, contact 

Jane Bringolf

Time for the majority to step up for inclusion

Promoting the concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging often falls to members of minority groups – people who are not included. But it’s actually up to members of the majority to step up for inclusion and get involved in DEIB.

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalities

Cody J Smith’s article lists 10 actions people in the majority can do to improve DEIB. He writes in the context of the sciences, but these actions apply anywhere. His ten actions are briefly listed below. It’s interesting that Smith has added “belonging” to today’s standard “DEI”. Belonging is how you feel when DEI is happening.

10 actions for inclusion

1. Listen to people’s experiences. Read the growing literature by people from underrepresented groups. If you are in the majority, what can you do to improve matters.
2. Check your implicit biases. Implicit bias is rampant in awards, publications, promotions and speaker selection.
3. Stop interrupting. Take time to watch the dynamics of meeting. If you identify someone overly interrupting, invite the person who was speaking to finish their point.
4. As you take a lead to impact DEIB, you will make mistakes. As in science, learn from them and adapt until you find a solution.
5. People from minority groups are often asked to take on additional responsibilities to represent their minority group. This extra work should be compensated rather than asking them to sign up for “the greater good”.
6. Those in the majority can wait for change, but that is not the case for those in the minority. Start working on solutions for immediate change.
7. Get in the room. Make an effort to attend DEIB events and encourage others in the majority to attend. Be careful to schedule non DEIB events so they don’t conflict with DEIB events.
8. Train others to advocate – start discussions and share literature.
9. Include DEIB in the classroom/staff meetings – is your work inclusive?
10. Find a DEIB champion. Smith explains the impact of Ben Barres who was the first openly transgender member of the National Academy of Sciences. Barres shares experiences of being both a woman and a man, and the impact of sexual harassment.

Learn from discomfort

The ten points are in the context of a science lecturer and researcher but the points are clear. Smith encourages people to “lean into any discomfort” you might experience – it will be how you learn – if you listen. For more detail see Smith’s article.

The main point though is that without the majority taking a lead, the minority cannot do it alone. After all, it is the majority who decide whether “others” will be included, feel validated and like they belong.

The title of the short article is, Members of the majority need to actively promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Making sure everyone can hear

According to Deafness Forum Australia, approximately one in six Australians has a significant hearing loss. Participants of any age in any learning situation might need some assistance to get the best learning experience. It could be a Zoom webinar or lecture, an in-person conference, or a roundtable discussion. The important point is, make sure everyone can hear.

Assistance can be as simple as sitting at the front of a lecture or presentation where lip reading can assist comprehension. Or it could be more complex with assistive listening devices and live captioning. Microphones also have a place as does minimal background noise.

Picture of an ear with sound waves

Most people lose their hearing after they have learned to speak, so they don’t learn Auslan (sign language). However, always check whether one of you participants or learners needs an Auslan interpreter. People who use Auslan often prefer to be referred to as Deaf rather than hard of hearing.

The ADCET website has more information on the impact of hearing loss. Although it is focused on school learners, much of the information is applicable in any learning or information sharing situation.

ADCET strategies for including people with hearing loss include:

  • Always speak facing the audience
  • Provide written materials to supplement lectures
  • Caption videos and provide a transcript
  • Keep hands away from your face
  • Choose venues with a working hearing loop or assistive listening devices
Adults seated at tables in a classroom setting looking forward to the instructor at the front of the room

Supporting participants online

COVID changed almost everything including being together in learning situations. In July 2020 ADCET surveyed disability practitioners from the tertiary sector to find out how this impacted their work. The result of this work was to develop a guideline for supporting Deaf and hard of hearing learners online.

Download the Guidelines from the ADCET website. They have specific instructions for using captions and transcripts and the different web applications that help the learning process. The free automatic AI captioning works adequately most of the time on Zoom. It can be activated in the settings.

The video below explains more.

Learning Styles: Not the same as UDL

If you’ve attended a personal or professional development workshop in the last 30 years you’ve probably heard of learning styles. It’s supposed to help you understand your own style to be a “better learner”. And teachers and instructors design their courses based on these learning styles.

Although this model is thoroughly challenged by research, it is still being promoted. Teachers and instructors believe they will design and deliver better learning experiences. However this is not the case.

A blog article, Learning styles: the limiting power of labels talks about debunking the myths around this topic. The process of labelling is discussed and once you or someone else assigns a label to you it becomes fixed. It becomes the background to your self-talk. It might even hold you back from wanting to learn more or apply for a job. Learning is much more than this and it is affected by our own attitudes. This is a thoughtful article for everyone, not just learners and teachers. And easy to read.

Universal Design for Learning is not learning styles 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a better way to consider the way people learn in all its diversity. A blog article, Universal Design for Learning is Not Learning Styles explains. 

As the article above states, UDL is is not the same as learning styles. It’s been debunked because it doesn’t have supporting evidence. In contrast, research on UDL has been widely replicated and grounded in learning sciences, neuroscience, and cognitive science. And it’s not just for learners with a learning difficulty – it’s good for all learners just like kerb cuts help everyone. 

Implementing UDL could help learners who cannot keep up with their peers, or have some learning disabilities. UDL does not just provide accessibility, but it eliminates barriers so every learner can succeed. Extensive research shows that the use of UDL supports strategic learning and enhance learners’ learning experience. CAST is a lead organisation in the field of UDL – it has many resources and frameworks for teachers and instructors. The video below gives an overview. 

See also the post on the myth of learning styles.  

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