Access to the Right Tools for the Trade

An astronaut in space.
The right tools for the job, and the right support to use those tools, support access to learning. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay.

In March 2019, another historic moment for space travel and exploration was scheduled – the first all-women spacewalk, due to take place at the International Space Station. However, days before the scheduled departure, it was discovered that a properly fitting spacesuit was not available for one of the astronauts. Without this essential tool, a tool that prevents astronauts from excessive fatigue and from potential harm being caused to their body, one of the women could not participate in the space operation. This illustrates the UDL principle of optimising access to tools and technology. 

According to a report in National Geographic, the spacesuit debacle was more complicated than just sexism: it raised a very real issue for women in all fields traditionally dominated by men. The tools weren’t initially designed with access to all potential astronauts in mind. A lack of access to the right tools served as a barrier to access for the astronaut, Anne McClain.

Originally spacesuits were designed as one-offs for each individual astronaut. Eventually, NASA required reusable suits. At first, these were based on a modular design in which the different parts, including the arms, legs, and torso, could be swapped out. It was around the same time, in the late 1970s, that the first American women were accepted into the astronaut training program. And it is also when the fit of spacesuits became especially challenging—and the differences between men’s and women’s bodies became an important factor. However, despite this becoming apparent more than four decades earlier, the barrier that Anne McClain faced was still not overcome.

In the last couple of years, redesigns of spacesuits include components that will support both men’s and women’s body sizes offering more comfort to what is an uncomfortable physical experience and allow for the broadest range of motion.

This illustrates that despite having the knowledge and understanding required to participate in a task, without access to the right tools, or the right support when tools are supplied, unnecessary barriers are created. This relates to UDL Checkpoint 4.2.

UDL Checkpoint 4.2: Optimise Access to Tools & Assistive Technologies

CAST explains that providing a learner with a tool is often not enough. We need to provide the support to use the tool effectively. Many learners need help navigating through their environment (both in terms of physical space and the curriculum), and all learners should be given the opportunity to use tools that might help them meet the goal of full participation in the classroom. However, significant numbers of learners with disabilities have to use assistive technologies for navigation, interaction, and composition on a regular basis.

It is critical that instructional technologies and curricula do not impose inadvertent barriers to the use of these assistive technologies. An important design consideration, for example, is to ensure that there are keyboard commands for any mouse action so that learners can use common assistive technologies that depend upon those commands. It is also important, however, to ensure that making a lesson physically accessible does not inadvertently remove its challenge to learning.

Practical Strategies

    • Provide concrete materials/manipulatives for tasks
    • Use scaffolding as tools to guide tasks
    • Provide options to use educational apps and websites
    • Offer Screen reading services
    • Provide access to alternative keyboards
    • Customize overlays for touch screens and keyboards

See more in this latest collection of posts, where illustrations of universal design (the design for ease and accessibility in the community) are shared. The goal to connect these to ways we can consider the design of teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students.