Embracing the concept of Universal Design is taking the lid off my own understanding of equity.
Like many primary trained teachers, I came to technology bringing my aesthetic of making things look gorgeous to engage learners in my back pocket. Getting my first laptop was heavenly, and many hours were spent making work sheets and parent newsletters with wicked borders and multi-coloured, multi-patterned headers.
Jumping online just widened the playing field, as all of a sudden there were blogs and wikis to plaster with images and videos and animations and banners. The possibilities seemed endless. And initially, no-one whispered in my ear, “Do you think this is good practice?”, they just said, “Wow, that looks cool”.
Thankfully, as the years have progressed, my understanding around Inquiry and Digital Literacy has evolved, and I am much more attentive to the way in which I construct learning environments.
But only recently have I turned around to face my elephant in the room—the challenge to commit to a philosophy of Universal Design.
The thing is, you don’t know what you don’t know.
In my head and heart I have strived to practice equitably and I have always had a bit of yen for finding ways to create engaging learning environments for those learners that are labelled as “undeserved”.
But Universal Design is more than that. It is about the design of resources and environments created to meet the needs of everyone, to the greatest extent possible, from the start.
But getting my head around Universal Design has been like learning to live in a new country where the first language is the same as my own but the culture is distinctly different.
I showed my partner a lovingly crafted document I had made, illustrated with coloured tables and graphics, photos and charts. It had been used to facilitate a very successful professional development session.
I asked him, if he thought the document could be accessed by someone who couldn’t see. He said he didn’t know, and what did it matter if no-one in the session was blind.
New thinking prompted by Universal Design principles:
- Am I modeling to colleagues a way of working that has as it’s baseline the premise that everyone has a right to access learning resources?
- Time is precious. If at a later date, I want to use this resource again and a participant in a session uses a screen reader, will I have to remake it?
- Time is precious. If I want to share this resource online or on a staff intranet, will I have to remake it so that it is searchable and accessible?
- Am I passing on inclusive equitable ideals to students in the classroom?
Until recently, it had never occurred to me that my practice could be more equitable, if at the outset I created resources and environments that made every effort to include everyone.
Text documents and best practice
And I’m not re-inventing the wheel here. For example, the tools for making more accessible documents are built into software like Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages. I just needed someone to tell me to use the Style guide to format documents, rather than making titles and sub-titles big, bold and underlined. That simple change of practice makes most documents more readable by a screen reader. Also, if I copy that text and upload it to a web page, the good formatting travels with it, saving lots of time editing online.
Also, pictures and images need captions, and, if possible, alt-text. It’s not a big job. In fact it’s really just a courtesy, but easy to miss if no-one has pointed it out.
PowerPoint and best practice
My other immediate learning curve has been around my use of presentation tools, such as PowerPoint. On the “making” front, it never occurred to me that the templates are there not just for beginners, or to create balance on the screen. They also provide hidden cues for a screen reader, allowing a person who is blind to listen to the text and the image descriptions.
But the biggest change has been around my consciousness of what I say when I’m presenting. In the past, when I have used a slide with just a quote on it, I have heard myself say, “I won’t read out the text, I’ll just let you read it yourselves”. Great concept, but not if you can’t see. Instead, I will now put the best quotes up to see and say them aloud. Also, I am learning to use the same principle when sharing images in a presentation. I cannot assume that everyone has 20/20 vision and can see what I can see. So now I am learning to describe the important images that are integral to my story-telling, but pass over the visual description if the image is just there for decoration.
I feel very much the novice in this brave new world of Universal Design, but, actually, it is a huge relief to have this heads-up. At least now I have a renewed consciousness around my practice. Also the thought of sharing these ideas with young learners as they find their feet with technology is really exciting. At least they will have the chance to befriend the elephant in the room and who knows how that will shape how we learn and live together.
If you are interested in finding out more about Universal Design and following up some of the brief examples of ways to make a difference, check out the links below. Also, if you would like to chat about some of the ideas, just get in touch.
- WebAim – information on creating more accessible Word documents
- Universal Design for Learning – an introduction to the 3 principles and a great video
- 2020 Learning Landscape: A Retrospective on Dyslexia – A UDL version of an academic paper