Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Disability Studies Pedagogy, Usability and Universal Design

Jay Dolmage
Miami University of Ohio
E-mail: JayDolmage@aol.com


In fall of 2004, I took part in a small research project at my institution, Miami University of Ohio, to assess the use of "universal design" in three classes taught at the undergraduate level. I will briefly recount my experience in collecting students' responses and suggestions about these classes both online, and by means of a focus group. I hope this story provides some insight into the practical ways Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is used in courses. But I want this account to do more: it will show how UDL must change and adapt, specifically by embracing "usability" and by more actively involving students in the redefinition of what we do. Overall, then, this Commentary provides the opportunity to share some experience-based thoughts about the ways that inclusion, negotiation and collaboration might shape the evolution of Disability Studies pedagogy.


At Miami, since early 2002, a small group of faculty has been meeting regularly to discuss and plan the development of Disability Studies at the school. In the short space of the last year, we have presented a White Paper on Disability Studies to the university community; organized a demonstration to illustrate inequities of access across campus; built a website; facilitated a debate about the Terri Schiavo case; and most recently, put together an official proposal for a Disability Studies minor.

Central to our agenda has been a focus on disability rights. We've challenged the social, cultural and intellectual spaces of the University to broaden, while concurrently we have been developing courses and traveling down other administrative avenues to make a place for the discipline. In this way, the group has worked for institutional, cultural and environmental change simultaneously. Our Universal Design for Learning research project was intended to gain momentum from and build momentum towards changes in each of these areas: respecting the presence of disability in university classes; validating disability as central to University life; responding to diverse student needs by designing a Universal pedagogy for multiple learning styles and goals.

The research project, designed by Dr. Kathleen Hutchinson, Dr. Cyndi Lewiecki-Wilson, Dr. Jean Lynch and Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman, was meant as a sort of participant development project, assessing the pedagogy of Universal Design which these teachers would be utilizing. As the only graduate student member of this group, I was asked to come in as an outside observer and facilitate the process of gathering feedback from students on the use of Universal Design in three classrooms: 1) a writing-intensive first year honors English class, 2) a second-year Speech Pathology and Audiology class and, 3) a Women's Studies and Education course.

Early Findings

Much of the feedback that I received from students in an initial online assessment was of a very general nature: I found that students, responding via email to a set of questions, tended to say that Universal Design was 'good' or 'useful'. Students then gave a summary of the strategies that the professors had used to design the class universally–an impressive list of teaching techniques including multiple and 'redundant' formats of presentation (video plus power-point plus handouts plus copies of notes and handouts on course websites plus movement around the classroom), the bridging of classroom and out-of-class contexts (class trips, cultural experiences, guest speakers and so on), the option to exhibit their knowledge in a variety of ways (tests and quizzes, but with oral options; 'notecards' used to allow students to ask questions when they don't want to speak aloud; the repeated atomization of the class, breaking into small groups or pairs to interact and then reconvening to share ideas; posting on listservs and message boards).

The general feedback was that, by not staying in one mode of learning, communicating, collaborating–of receiving or conveying knowledge–each student could benefit more, even as all benefit differently. The few specific details that students pointed out all concerned what might be seen as learning difficulties or disabilities–the ability to stay on task, to concentrate, to communicate in a non-conventional mode–and it was clear that in 'accommodating' these differences, the class was not 'slowed' or 'simplified' but dynamized and empowered.

Mid-course Review

When I met with a large group of students from all three classes mid-semester to talk about Universal Design for Learning in an informal focus group, the picture of UD pedagogy became even more clear. I brought with me a set of 'talking points' from the earlier email survey which I read aloud and projected on a large screen via power-point. We then discussed each point and I took notes in a Word document that was also on-screen, while repeating the main points of the discussion and asking for clarification and emphasis.

In this way, the group co-composed an evaluation of the courses through a Universally-Designed process of negotiation and discussion. I did not aim to create a consensus, but rather used the note-taking process to pause at 'points of tension' and marked them out as such. One of the main 'points of tension' in this discussion came about as a result of our discussion about the very purposes of the focus group. The students made it very clear to me that, if the group's work didn't lead to tangible changes in the classroom, the very philosophy of UDL was being compromised. The students were telling me they wanted a central role in the design of the pedagogical space, as they took their place in this pedagogical interface.

Together we realized that, although UDL validated their standpoint, there was nothing explicit in the principles of UDL that provided for student-feedback as part of a dynamic process of pedagogy design and revision. Though Frank G. Bowe (2000), in his book-length study of UDL, mentions the need for interaction between teachers and students, this practice has not been codified in a useful way. The recent work by the New London Group on the concept of "multiliteracies" puts forward a philosophy and a pedagogy of multiple literacies and multimodal learning and expression, and these scholars, including James Paul Gee, Gunther Kress, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, foreground the role students must be given in the re-design of social futures (2000). Yet the New London Group does not call this universal design, nor do they address learning differences from the perspective of disability. We wanted a more insistent principle of learner negotiation for UDL, based on its principles of inclusion. The students said, repeatedly, that professors would know what 'works' and what needs to be done if they just asked their own students. While recounting a list of strategies that teachers used, and addressing questions about how UDL could be better-incorporated, the students continually insisted that teachers had to allow students multiple modes of course assessment–to give them some control over course design so that their abilities and needs could be adequately addressed.

One of two "resolutions" developed by the focus group was that I was to take their feedback straight to the professors. The evaluation process had been designed to collect feedback on how UDL had worked and how it might be altered in future classrooms and across the Miami campus in coming years. But we realized this re-calibration had to be immediate. Students demanded that course evaluation, as well as all other aspects of universal course design, work for them now; they refused the level of mediation that I represented and spoke directly and loudly as users interfacing with the decision-makers, their teachers.

A Turning Point

This then led me to look into the ways that Universal Design might interact with the principles of usability to make for a more iterative design–a design of pedagogy that could be more continually responsive to students, more dynamic, that could offer students more tangible negotiative roles. Designing for usability incorporates the testing of a product on actual end-users, a practice that aims to ensure that the interaction between person and product is smooth, accessible, optimally usable. An essential aspect of the production cycle is the testing and alteration of the product by its users. It follows that usability could lead to more co-intentional, democratic education.

Blending Two Frameworks

I see Universal Design and Usability as related concepts, ideas that have morphed and changed over time, but in very connected ways. In classrooms at Miami, we began creating a hybrid pedagogy that united usability and Universal Design. Here I want to briefly show how the two frameworks share a common history through disability, as well as the ways that we might build a critical hermeneutics through their combination.

People with disabilities have created products, according to their user wants and needs, as varied and important as the vibrating pager, the type-writer and the personal digital assistant (Jacobs, 2005). We see that people with disabilities, claiming the role not of consumers but of innovators or co-creators, can circumvent medical-model thinking, confront paternal attitudes and shift entrenched roles and stereotypes. Usability-testing, when it allows for input from people with disabilities, can affirm human ingenuity and diversity, can confront mass-produced normativity. In the classroom, incorporating the usability model also allows students to evade the role of passive consumer.

Yet it is important, in this relationship as in all other relationships, to ask just who is using whom. In its history, usability, I believe, often speaks for Universal Design, and has played a crucial role in how UD has been rhetorically constructed–and vice versa. Yet I suspect that usability may become a way to talk about "user-centered design" without always recognizing the diversity of these users–without placing disability at the center of the call for the adaptation of physical, technological, ideological, pedagogical spaces and interfaces. Usability often takes the 'dis' out of disability–by ignoring users with varied needs and goals, or by suggesting that technologies, spaces (and perhaps pedagogies) can be re-designed to make disability disappear.

In the same way, Universal Design has become a way to talk about changing space to accommodate the broadest range of users, yet consistently overlooks the importance of continued feedback from these users. Therefore, I'd argue that usability needs Universal Design and Universal Design, specifically of instruction, needs usability.

History and Broader Significance

The development of the concept of usability has been historically tied to the rights of people with disabilities. Whether in response to a more diverse (and often disabled) workforce following the second World War, or in reaction to the increasingly politicized input from people with disabilities about society's barriers, usability foregrounds the ways bodies interact with technologies and environments, and often points up the ways environments and technologies exclude and even 'disable'.

As recent work from David Serlin (2004), N. Katherine Hayles (1999), Rosi Braidotti (2002) and others shows us, thinking through the usability of technology pushes us into the generative theoretical space where culture and biology meet. People with disabilities have been sometimes the agents, sometimes the targets and sometimes the limits of the push for user-centered production. And when people with disabilities aren't seen as users/producers, control over that space where biology and culture meet is taken away. It is therefore of crucial importance to reiterate this connection between usability and disability, and the classroom is a place to start.

Universal Design does not have the same long history–in some ways, UD developed out of the usability movement. Though Ronald Mace coined the term 'Universal Design' in a 1985 article in Designer's West, one of the first published articles on UD was titled "Maximizing Usability: The Principles of Universal Design" (Story, 1988). Early discourse about UD borrowed heavily from the discourse of usability. Yet Universal Design is usability with a key difference: it has always been more closely wed to the goal of making the world more accessible for people with disabilities. While usability principles have listed people with disabilities as one key constituency, UD has placed individuals with disabilities at the center. However, we often conceptualize UD through its static constructions and codified principles–can we make it more, and more democratically, malleable?

A Graphic Summary (with description)

In our experience at Miami, we saw that usability and Universal Design together interact to change the way we think about teaching. The following simple graphic might more clearly explain the differences between 'normal' design, Universal Design, and Usability and Universal Design.

Graphic Summary

There are three images in this diagram. The first image, labeled number 1, on the far left, shows an arrow pointing from a "designer" at the bottom of the image upwards to an "ideal user", illustrating the way that pedagogy has traditionally been designed by the teacher alone, and then directed at or given to the single ideal student.

The second image, labeled number 2, shows two arrows. Both of these arrows begin at the "designer" at the bottom of the image, but the arrow on the left points out diagonally upward and to the left, and the arrow on the right points out diagonally upward and to the right. The image therefore conveys a much broader way of thinking about who the user is, and the widening range that the arrows point to is labeled "broad range of possible users", illustrating the idea of Universal Design. The teacher develops a pedagogy that expands towards a broader range of students.

The third image, labeled number 3, also shows two arrows beginning at the "designer". These arrows, however, become spirals that move up towards the "broad range of possible users" and then return back to the "designer" as they also expand outwards. The image illustrates the idea that the designer and user communicate and co-create as the range expands–this is how usability and Universal Design work together. As represented in figure 3, in combination with continued feedback, Universal Design expands as it responds to changing user needs.

The third diagram communicates the result of more users becoming more involved in design–shifting away from the teacher-centered approach. Teachers can't be the sole designers of pedagogy, and students must direct the re-engineering of the classroom. The result is that teachers and students work together to develop a pedagogy that is broad and responsive–not a teaching catch-all, but a considered and flexible pedagogy, localized as it is globalized.

Putting Principles into Practice

Out of this thinking, we began to investigate ways that we could better engage students in the design of curriculum. We wanted to maintain the priority of planning–Universal Design is attractive because it is a proactive move, rather than a retro-fitting of the curriculum. But how do you get students involved in planning classes before they even begin, as well as while they are underway? How can this development also become an engine for the development of disability culture on campus, for the development of Disability Studies programs themselves?

One suggestion is to more actively build feedback into courses, as well as to leave the beginning of a course open for student input–write and re-write the syllabus together. We also thought a proactive move would be the development of a Universal Design and usability website, which teachers and students from all over could contribute to. In our usability/UDL site, we move through some arguments for the need to unite the two concepts, and we try to define both.

But, most importantly, we have tried to create opportunities for students and teachers to rhetorically intervene, to talk back. I've created a WIKI, a website that allows browsers to rewrite the content that they are reading. On this WIKI, browsers are asked to redefine Universal Design, and to add or alter some of the ideas about what the best practices are. They are also given opportunities to share ideas and stories.1

Visit the Miami University Disability Studies website at: www.muohio.edu/disabilitystudies

Click on "Universal Design and Usability Site" to see the entire site, or click on "Universal Design and Usability WIKI" to go directly to the WIKI.

I've also created an area where students and educators can address some of the complicated questions that Universal Design might face. I will move toward the conclusion of this commentary with the following list of questions.

Moving Ahead: Some Questions for Pedagogy

Here are some of the questions we might ask of Universal Design:

  1. How can usability and Universal Design work together? That is, how can usability testing (not just of products but of curriculum) embrace difference more broadly, looking towards a diverse group of users instead of an ideal user for feedback? How can Universal Design more consciously and systematically ask for and utilize feedback from students, especially students with disabilities?

  2. How do we respond to critiques that Universal Design is too broadly conceived, that anything 'Universal' cannot be pragmatic, realistic, or even truly egalitarian and representative of difference?

  3. Critical Race theorists talk about the concept of 'interest convergence'–the idea that conditions change for minorities only when the changes can be seen (and promoted) as positive for the majority group as well (see Bell, 1993). How will Universal Design for learning avoid this problem, especially when the claim that UD is 'good for all students' is so prominent? How is the very development of Disability Studies curriculum prone to such arguments–in what ways do we have to distance ourselves from disability and mainstream our rhetoric, over-emphasizing the point that all students benefit?

  4. On the other edge of this sword, many arguments around Universal Design and the critique of exclusive spaces utilize or imply a 'we are all disabled' argument. How does this argument negate the lived experience of people with disabilities? How can we BOTH show how spaces and ideologies affect us all while recognizing the importance of disability as a situated knowledge, a unique and important perspective? If 'we are all disabled', how do we recognize oppression against individuals?

  5. How does Universal Design move from the physical environment to the intellectual environment through curricular design? How then could this movement become circular, calling for even greater physical access? How could the relationship extend–how can Universal Design lead to systemic change on the university-wide level, for instance in hiring practices, admissions policies and so on?

  6. In what ways does the development of Disability Studies often compete with rather than synergize with the development of other 'minoritized' curriculum? Is the push for diversity in the curriculum survival-of-the-fittest? Does Universal Design give us ways to push for a hybrid curriculum rather than a retro-fitted and politically correct one, or rather than two streams–one of normalcy and one of supplemental minority studies?

  7. How does Universal Design respond to the push towards Globalization? That is, is Universal Design a homogenizing move, culturally? Or are there ways to conceptualize UDL that don't fall in line with the logic of Empire and global capitalism–ways to foreground 'local' or culturally specific knowledges while also emphasizing equality? How might usability twist this logic as well, by empowering producers and users rather than creating passive consumers?

Concluding Thoughts

Finally, I believe that through disability, usability and Universal Design share more than a history, and more than an overlapping concern for the production of space, technology and pedagogy–they roll together towards a better future co-created by people with disabilities. What we've learned at Miami is that the two concepts can truly empower students to help us teach better. It also follows that the creation of an ongoing dialogue about pedagogy in the pages of this journal can make Disability Studies pedagogy more responsive and reflexive. I hope that this dialogue can creatively bridge between our research and our practice as educators, and that we can reach out to students in these pages as well, as we recognize how much we have to learn together.


Bell, D.A. (1993). Remembrance of Racism Past: The Civil Rights Decline. In Hill & J. E. Jones (Eds.) Race in America: The Struggle for Equality (pp. 73-82). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bowe, F. G. (2000). Universal Design in Education: Teaching Non-traditional Students. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Braidotti, R. (2002). Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clarkson, J. P. and S. Keates. (2003). Countering Design Exclusion: An Introduction to Inclusive Design. London: Springer-Verlag.

Cope, B. and Kalantzis, M. Eds. (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacobs, S. (2005). "The Electronic Curb-Cut Effect". Developed in support of the World Bank Conference: Disability and Development. Retrieved June 24 2005 from: http://www.icdri.org/technology/ecceff.htm

Serlin, D. (2004). Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: U. Chicago Press.

Story, M.F. (1988). Maximizing Usability: The Principles of Universal Design. Assistive Technology 10.1. 4-12.


1Unfortunately, the WIKI itself is not the most usable interface, but because this is the same technology used by the administrators of the Wikipedia, an important online encyclopedia which uses this interface, it is also important that we generate some user feedback about how WIKIs could be made more accessible–on the website I provide an opportunity for you to send me this feedback, which I can then pass on.