Universal Design: It's for Everyone

“Historically, access just meant getting people through the front door, with access to some activities,” said Bob McConnell, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities at Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University. “Then the concept of access moved further, and everyone said, ‘Let’s include people with disabilities in what we do — not just get them in the door.’

“Now there is universal design, which takes access and inclusion even further,” McConnell continued. “It said, ‘Let’s not make it special for people with disabilities, but let’s make it so that all people can come and use what we have and participate at their own will, level, and desire, with no barriers.’”

One example of universal design is ramps. “If we use ramps all around,” McConnell explained, “everyone gets in the door, and it’s not unusual.”

Another example is professors posting their lectures on their Web pages, indicating that universal design extends beyond facilities to curriculum and the way professors teach. “If professors put lectures on their Web pages,” said McConnell, “every student has access, including students who are blind. Because everyone is getting their information in the same way, it’s universal.”

A Commitment to Move Forward
McConnell is quick to point out that universal design is a relatively new concept — so new that it is still evolving. And that’s where Edinboro comes into the picture. Because the school has a rich history of working toward inclusivity, it leads the charge in higher education universal design. “It’s who we are at Edinboro,” he said succinctly.

The University started installing access ramps in the 1970s. “We started providing support services to allow students to participate in the collegiate experience,” McConnell said. “Now we want to decentralize what we do and have the institution provide responsibility across all lines so that everyone can participate without being noted as different.”

Because Edinboro has worked so diligently in the past 30 years to be inclusive, the University has a lot of students with disabilities. Specifically, of approximately 7,700 undergraduate and graduate students, between 70 and 80 use wheelchairs. “The next highest state school has probably four,” McConnell said.

The Crawford Center, completed in 2002 and which houses the Office for Students with Disabilities, is indicative of Edinboro’s commitment. The facility has an interior ramp to the second floor. The advantage this offers is that, if the elevator breaks or the power goes out, there is still access to classrooms on the second floor. In fact, McConnell points out, there is a specific plan in place indicating alternative classrooms if the need arises.

Similarly, the facility has testing rooms so that students with ADHD can test in a distraction-reduced environment. The rooms are also used for students who need extended testing time. “The rooms provide a refuge,” said McConnell. “We do thousands of tests every year in them.”

Overall, McConnell said that the Crawford Center’s design did a good job of meeting anticipated needs, so changes that have been made since the facility opened are more a factor of changes at Edinboro than of meeting inclusion needs.

One of those changes involves the Health/Physical Education Department, which moved into the new half of the building when it first opened (the Office for Students with Disabilities moved into the renovated half). The Health/Physical Education Department received a grant to purchase new computers. At the same time, McConnell’s department was moving toward having technology available wherever students need it, as opposed to requiring students to go to technology.

The Office for Students with Disabilities gave the Health/Physical Education Department half of an underused lab for its computers, thus providing its students with easy access to technology. In exchange, McConnell’s department received a room on the other side of the building where Braille and tactile services are offered to students who are blind, thus providing them with easy access to those services.

Another way in which Edinboro is promoting universal design is through agreements with the English, Math, Counseling, and the School Psychology Departments, which hold evening classes in the Crawford Center. This allows students with disabilities to take evening classes in an accommodating environment.

Also, the University has five articulation agreements with other universities. In one situation, Edinboro uses occupational therapy interns from another university every semester to assist students with disabilities. “We’re helping them, and they’re helping us,” said McConnell. “It allows everyone to be in the academic environment as much as possible and participate.

“More recently,” McConnell continues, “we’ve had professors record their lectures on podcasts and put them on their Web pages. This is good for students who have trouble taking notes.” He noted that the podcasts are listened to by more than 80 percent of a class’ students, especially as exams approach. “Podcasts work for everyone,” he summed, “and we’re encouraging faculty to do more.”

Another way Edinboro uses technology to promote universal design is via online courses. McConnell notes that online courses are accessible to everyone, and that it isn’t especially challenging to meet specific needs. For instance, if students are taking timed tests online, timing adjustments can be made for students who need extended time.

In Spite of the Challenges
Not surprisingly, moving toward universal design hasn’t been without its challenges. McConnell said that, like a lot of initiatives, getting people to buy in and actually participate is the hardest challenge. “We’re not always successful with that,” he admitted. “We have our nay-sayers and people who refuse to do it. There are people who say that, if students can’t physically participate, they shouldn’t be in college. That’s the toughest thing.”

Another challenge is, of course, money. McConnell wishes there was more in order to make additional advances. “There isn’t much support in higher education to do that right now,” he said wistfully. “Everyone is watching their pennies.

“If we have a single failure or difficulty,” McConnell continues, “I would say that it’s getting people with the resources on board and willing to make universal design happen to the extent we’d like. It’s a slow process, and I’d like it to go faster.”

Nonetheless, McConnell is holding his ground, and even inching forward. The University is building eight suite-style residence halls. In planning, it was raised that it would be nice for some of the suites to be wheelchair accessible.

“The ADA requires interior doors to be a minimum of 32 inches wide,” said McConnell. “I said, ‘Let’s make every interior door 36 inches wide.’ Exterior doors must be a minimum of 36 inches. I said, ‘Let’s make every exterior door 40 inches wide. Let’s go beyond the standard so that everyone can use every door, and it won’t make a difference.’”

Similarly, the ADA requires accessible sink faucets to have lever handles. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do faucets with lever handles in every room?’” said McConnell. “If they’re all the same, no one will feel different.

“We’re trying to say that anybody can live in any room — there doesn’t have to be special rooms for students with special needs,” McConnell continued. “If we make everything designed universally, we don’t have to restrict where students live and how they participate on campus. We are moving in that direction.”