A large room with a large glass ceiling, a group of chairs in a wide open space, and a suspended red helical ramp winding up to second floor.
Ed Roberts campus in Berkeley, CA is a universally designed community space.

Whether you have heard about Universal Design (UD) before, or this is your introduction, I encourage you to note your first impression when looking at the unique space pictured to the left. To me, it is striking with the glass ceiling, natural light, and the substantial architectural feature of a red, suspended helical ramp winding up to the 2nd floor. The minimal pods of chairs and stools in the wide-open space invites groups and individuals for conversation or work. Don’t you want to be in more places like this? This space, Ed Roberts Campus, incorporated UD and sustainability principles into the design as part of their mission. Don’t you want to create, imagine, and connect there? Coffee, Wednesday at 10? 

Universal Design is a process that makes environments and designs usable by all people through centering accessibility in design. Beginning in physical design and architecture, it involves 7 principles. Without detailing the thoughtful scope of these principles, UD is about designing with attention to equitability, flexibility, and simplicity. UD is creating and building spaces that are intuitive and welcoming, centering all user needs in terms of function, hazards, and access

These principles and the concept of designing for all have expanded into learning spaces, termed Universal Design for Learning (UDL), with a focus on the process of providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression. Both education and disability scholar studies suggest that implementing these principles into design and learning leads to meaningful and holistic benefits, and with more systemic implementation, the data would be more robust (Hartmann 2015; Smith et al. 2019). So why do we not see these principles in the design of higher education facilities and why are they not pervasive in the classrooms and learning spaces of the academy? What are the barriers to full integration and implementation? Is it too complicated, too expensive, too innovative? How can institutions continue to engage in conversations across campus and speed up the adoption of UD/UDL in higher education?

People are doing it at your institution, but it doesn’t foreground facility and space planning

In conversations about this topic on my campus, I continuously hear several names of people doing this work, implementing it in their classrooms, and seeking more widespread adoption of these practices and principles. What I have found, however, is that it is the same handful of names—and they are not the people making decisions about facility design, classroom allocation, or course scheduling and management. So, we often see the implementation in a one-off setting, and the consistency of their teaching spaces is marginal at best. For example, on our campus we have several classrooms designed for active and engaged learning that may have many of the UD principles integrated into the classroom by default. However, they are sought out by everyone, and we don’t really know our classroom until the day classes start. The range of features in the classroom you could be teaching in varies tremendously (e.g., one whiteboard behind a screen vs. walls of movable whiteboard panels). For me, this is a huge barrier to experimentation and implementation. I understand that the cost of widespread classroom redesign is high. I also think not doing it speaks volumes to some of the limits placed on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on a campus. If we want to talk the talk, then we better invest to walk the walk. This should not be about performative change—it has to be visible action that elevates principles of inclusive equity over all “barriers and excuses.”

Spaces matter to UDL

We have previously talked about desk design (Ketcham & Kibler 2021). If desks were designed to be used by people of multiple needs, that would be, no surprise, a great design for the dynamic needs of one person, a classroom, or a lesson. Spaces that incorporate flexibility become more usable. Seems simple. This concept needs to be in place to effectively experiment with and implement UDL principles. For example, if an instructor wants to design their course using Scrum methodology (Goforth 2021), space matters. In this design there might be 3-4 options of engagement—including, but not limited to, lecture, video, reading, team problem-solving, case study discussion. Having spaces within a classroom to break into small groups and engage in these various forms of content makes a big difference. Is it necessary? Probably not, but for new adopters the lack of appropriate spaces may be the barrier to implementation–especially if what kind of classroom space you’ll have from term to term is essentially playing the lottery. 

UD/UDL is a process
Read that slowly and out loud again. UD/UDL is a process. It is not a noun and it is never stagnant (Dolmage 2017). This fact is really important. UD/UDL is dynamic and adaptive. It is more than just the what and where, but how we engage and interact with and within our environments. It assumes that if we design spaces and learning opportunities with all abilities in mind, the design is better for all.

. . .

Wait. UD/UDL assumes learning opportunities are created with all abilities in mind. This means we need to know something about our learners. This also insinuates that we acknowledge that the learners in our classrooms change.

Yikes, that is so simple! Yet, our behavior, so steeped in tradition, suggests it is asking a lot, or too much.

We can do this!

. . .

Let’s take, for example, the adaptations so many have made to their classrooms because of the pandemic. Suddenly, the mode of engagement changed for many (in-person to remote), some had to manage multiple modes (in-person and remote), and some instructors created multiple action/expression modes (synchronous vs. asynchronous subgroups). Look at that, opportunities expanded. BUT, this was in reaction to a pandemic and so many of us are ready to get back to “normal”. Count me in!

As I reflect, intentionally thinking about how the use of these different modes of engagement, action/expression, and representation are components many instructors now may be able to envision as effective tools in their classrooms and learning spaces, I wonder if we can we leverage this experience. What about our learners? Every water cooler chat involves something reminiscent of “kids these days, nothing like what we had to do.”  No &#!^ (there really is no appropriate academic term here, and my professional writing colleague reminds us we should “use the language we have”). Yes, kids are different than when “we” were kids. AND the environments they learn in, the technology they have access to, the societal expectations, etc. are all different too. We must consider the impacts of time and era on our systems, processes, and individuals. UD/UDL is a process.

Final thoughts . . . for now
So let’s together think about the barriers to implementing UD/UDL principles in our institutions. What conversations, resources, and initiatives are needed to shift toward full integration and adoption of the principles and practices? Who really needs to be on board and who is instrumental in leading this change? If you and your institution are doing it well, what facilitated this success? Are there systems in place to continually update and improve? What can we learn from each other?

I leave you with this quote from a fantastic book by Jay Timothy Dolmage, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.

Universal Design is not about buildings, it is about building—building community, building better pedagogy, building opportunities for agency. It is a way to move.

(Dolmage 2017, 118)

Let’s Get Moving!


Dolmage, Jay Timothy. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr33d50.

Goforth, Jennie. 2021. “SoTL Showcase: Adopting ‘Scrum’ to Give Students Choice in the Classroom.” Today at Elon, April 26, 2021. https://www.elon.edu/u/news/2021/04/26/sotl-showcase-adopting-scrum-to-give-students-choice-in-the-classroom/.

Hartmann, Elizabeth. 2015. “Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Learners with Severe Support Needs.” International Journal of Whole Schooling 11 (1): 54–67.

Ketcham, Caroline J., and Emily Kibler. 2021. “Ableism in Academia: Let’s Talk About Desks.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), November 9, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-lets-talk-about-desks.

Smith, Sean J., Kavita Rao, K. Alisa Lowrey, J. Emmett Gardner, Eric Moore, Kimberly Coy, Matthew Marino, and Brian Wojcik. 2019. “Recommendations for a National Research Agenda in UDL: Outcomes From the UDL-IRN Preconference on Research.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 30 (3): 174–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/1044207319826219.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “Ableism in Academia: Universal Design.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 8, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-Universal-Design.