“Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design

Part 2 of Education for All

Universal Design in Architecture

Universal design is a concept that has come to us from architecture.  Architects noticed that as the handicapped were increasingly accommodated not only by retrofitting buildings, but by designing buildings from scratch to meet the needs of the handicapped, a curious thing was happening: the general public was also benefiting from the designs.

The wheelchair ramps worked well for cyclists and parents with children in strollers.  The lower wash basins and levered handles made life easier for small children.  Even the subtitles on television have proven a boon in places such as noisy hospital waiting rooms.  And who hasn’t hit the big blue button with their elbow or their foot when trying to wrangle too many packages through a heavy door?  In fact, the accommodations that many of us thought would be expensive extras for the few have proven to be welcome improvements in the lives of many.

Now it sometimes happens that the lessons or ideas of one discipline cross over successfully to another.  A well-made woodworking tool becomes a surgical instrument and leads to an unexpected partnership between the toolmaker and the surgeon.   The sciences of psychology and neurology, the art of religion and the discipline of philosophy discover that more and more often they are saying similar things until a psychiatrist finds himself writing a guide to meditation, a neurologist writes a book on Zen and the Brain and another neurologist explores the importance of emotions and the meaning of consciousness.  The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education is offering collaborative graduate work in areas such as neuroscience.  These developments come from a willingness to explore an unordinary take on things using a combination of imagination, openness to new ideas and critical thinking.

Universal Design and Education

At first blush, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s embrace of universal design might seem to be one of these happy crossovers.  Their idea is that if the curriculum is taught in a way that students with learning disabilities can learn it, then the same method will work for all the students in the class.  The corollary is that with rare exceptions all students should be in the same class because they all can be taught well at the same time.

A Brief Review of Learning Disabilities

To clarify (and those of you who know all about LD should skip the next couple of paragraphs): by definition, a student with a learning disability has average intelligence or above and has a deficit in one or more areas that affect learning.  The student may have difficulty reading but no difficulty with mathematical concepts or may have problems using a pen or pencil to write neatly at a reasonable speed but can write wonderful stories using a computer.   Each person who has a learning disability is different from any other one; the only thing they all have in common is they are all at least as smart as the normal person.

Many students with learning disabilities (or as one student I know puts it: learning differences) only need some simple accommodations to be very successful.  One student may need to have someone else’s notes photocopied for him (because he can’t write fast enough and, at the same time, pay attention to the material being taught), more time on tests, to take fewer courses and have textbooks recorded (because he can’t read fast enough even though his comprehension is excellent).  Another student might need to use a laptop in class and answer some questions in note form.  A third might use a non-programmable calculator for a math test because she can do mathematics but not arithmetic.

As an aside, I must note that these so-called disabilities would hardly have been noticed in another time and place.  In a society where minimal literacy and numeracy was needed, what counted would have been how hard people worked, how well they did their jobs and character.  Few people a hundred years ago would have been expected to do much in school after grade eight and many would not have gone even that far.  I think we should remember that an LD is a very subtle insult to the brain and in the larger scheme of things should not have an impact on our view of the student as a whole.

To return to universal design and education, it would be a great savings in time and money if universal design worked in the classroom.  However, for most LD students it is helpful to have highly structured assignments whereas the intellectually talented profit from open-ended assignments.  Combining high structure and open-endedness in an assignment can be done and I have created assignments that worked for everyone, however they generally took a considerable amount of planning and the most successful one took three teachers to deliver it.  The teacher librarian and the computer teacher participated in the delivery of the project.

While teachers of primary students are guaranteed a maximum of 23 students in their classrooms, teachers of grade seven and eight may have 34 students in theirs.  By the intermediate years, the gap in learning has grown considerably between the weak students and the strong students.  Throw in students who are learning disabled and some who have behavioural problems and a teacher will have her hands full trying to successfully meet everyone’s needs.  Should she try to teach using a single design the equivalent of an architectural ramp or lowered sink, she will find herself with a large group of bored, restless students.

An Example of Universal Design or Differentiation?

The example of Universal Design (P. 12) in Education for All is more like the architectural equivalent of a sign saying UP! at the base of a ramp, ladder, elevator and escalator; a health professional beside the sign would choose the most appropriate way for each individual to ascend and still get their heart rate to an aerobic level.  However, it is a wonderful example of differentiation in teaching a lesson in literature; what it does not explain clearly is how a teacher might handle the differentiation in a class of thirty if some of the students will need the teacher’s guidance for periods of time.  It especially does not address how to deal with students with behavioural challenges in this kind of situation; many of them need direct supervision.

The lay person reading this may assume that an educational assistant would be available but EAs are becoming more and more restricted to students with physical handicaps and are rarely assigned to classrooms anymore.  Administrators might point out that special education teachers are now coming into the classroom to support the regular classroom teachers.  This is true, but they are not available full time to any class so they focus on the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

I have a sneaking suspicion that as time goes by, money for special education teachers will be cut until only the very severely affected students will receive support.  The argument will be that since many teachers are now receiving the equivalent of the old Special Education Certificate Part 1 as part of their B. Ed., they will soon be equipped to deal with behavioural, LD and other special education needs.  What the Ministry, administrators, academics and the public will forget is that this kind of teaching not only requires knowledge but also experience and time.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST:  EDUCATION FOR ALL: an analysis of the content.  August 14th

FOURTH POST:  Giftedness and EDUCATION FOR ALL: August 21st

FIFTH POST: Charts for Teachers derived from EDUCATION FOR ALL:  August 26st


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