Western profs use Universal Design for Learning principles to make classes more accessible | Campus

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Lecture Hall, King’s University College, March 30, 2023. 



Some Western University professors are using the principles of Universal Design for Learning in their classrooms to make their courses more accessible to all students. 

UDL is a teaching guide for educators that helps make the content more flexible and accessible to accommodate the needs of all students and eliminate unnecessary barriers in the classroom. 

“When you think about UDL, it isn’t a silver bullet, but rather another bullet within our ammunition box,” said Jeff Preston, associate professor of disability studies at King’s University College.

The framework allows professors to teach in  multiple unique ways and allows students to demonstrate their learning through various methods.

Preston, a long-time advocate of accessible learning, said UDL can help professors design a flexible syllabus to support all kinds of learners. Preston said providing PowerPoint presentations before lectures, supplying notes and changing the medium of an assignment are examples of easy ways he integrates UDL into the classroom. 

“As a student with a disability, I’d often felt like we were building classrooms that were designed for a different kind of learner, and I would enter the classrooms and we would try to rapidly make adjustments to try and fit me the square peg that had already been created,” said Preston. 

Since becoming a professor, Preston feels it’s his responsibility to change the space he is in to make it conducive to all learners. 

But Preston makes it clear that UDL does not eliminate the need for accessibility accommodations, nor is it a checklist towards accessible learning. 

“Accessibility is not a destination or an endpoint, it’s an iterative process. It’s something that we strive for every day,” said Preston. 

A 2022 research study on accessible education students at Western University found that 60 per cent of respondents struggled with “access fatigue,” a type of exhaustion people with disabilities face when having to repeatedly explain their situation to have their needs met. 

“It was one of the things that was made clear to me, how much energy students put into seeking accommodations,” said social science assistant dean of equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization and anthropology professor Kim Clark, who conducted the study.

Clark said students with disabilities are often stuck paying a “crip tax,” a term that refers to the extra time, money and emotions that students need to pay to have access to accommodation. 

Alexa McCoy, a 2023 graduate of King’s sociology program, said they “definitely experienced” access fatigue during their time at the college.

“I wasn’t even sure what kind of accommodations existed or what I could ask for,” said McCoy.

Clark said that UDL “advocates for providing forms of flexibility and forms of choice,” and flexibility in the syllabus can create less work for professors. 

She said implementing things like a “late-bank” in her course — a guideline to allow students to extend their deadlines — takes into account the diverse experiences of students.  

Pamela Block, a Western anthropology professor who studies cultural perceptions of disability, highlighted UDL is not a one-size-fits-all all approach.

“You’re trying to make it the most accessible for the most people — that doesn’t necessarily mean perfect access for everybody,” said Block.

Block acknowledges she has been met with pushback regarding some of her UDL approaches, specifically reading directly from PowerPoints during lectures. But for Block, this is important so all students can have access to spoken word content. 

Ridley Smith, a second-year sociology and family studies student at King’s, said that while his experience with accessibility has been “really positive,” he finds it frustrating when professors include information in the lecture that isn’t written on the slides. 

“Some of my profs test on material that was spoken instead of things that are purely on the slides,” said Smith. 

Smith, who has ADHD, said that the UDL principles integrated through his classes could be “really beneficial.”

The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Western provides programs where instructors can become UDL-certified and some faculties including Social Science have resources on their websites for professors to research using UDL techniques in their classrooms

Preston hopes his students will go on to “destroy the spaces that they enter next, and rebuild them outside the ableist norm,” and increase accessibility for all.

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