NIU can boost diversity, inclusion, accessibility by adopting ‘universal design,’ advocates say

Greg Long chairs the Presidential Commission on Persons with Disabilities.

Greg Long chairs the Presidential Commission on Persons with Disabilities.

Federal mandates are requiring post-secondary institutions across the country to implement best practices to increase access, reduce barriers and achieve greater success with a diverse student body.

This is particularly important as NIU enrolls a greater numbers of older students, veterans and second-language learners.

These students represent a myriad of social, economic and cultural backgrounds. Their presence and visible campus resources demonstrates the value the university places on diversity.

Embracing a diverse student body, however, requires effort.

Research reflects that few faculty and staff have formal knowledge regarding educational best practices with these students.

To address this issue, the NIU Presidential Commission on Persons with Disabilities (PCPD) encourages university-wide adoption of Universal Design (UD).

Although originally designed to increase access for people with disabilities, such as through ramps, curb cuts, closed-captioning and grab bars, UD is a philosophy that emphasizes usability for everyone.

UD is especially important with regard to technology access, as more academic programs incorporate “online” components in their courses.

“When information technology, devices, and software are developed with accessibility in mind,” said PCPD Chair Greg Long, “no one needs to be left out.”

Melanie Thompson

Melanie Thompson

One of the easiest ways to apply UD principles is through the selection of textbooks that come both in printed form and in electronic format.  This allows students with visual and print disabilities to have access to the text without needing an alternate format to be created.

Melanie Thompson, director of NIU’s Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR), said “the use of UD principles to proactively design course content and materials can contribute to an increase in students’ ability to access and engage with course content from the first day of class.”

Universal Design is also helpful to students who do not wish to disclose they have disabilities.

For example, the Department of Veteran Affairs reports hearing loss and tinnitus as the most prevalent service-related disabilities of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“Many veteran students do not wish to ask for accommodations or necessarily disclose their status as a veteran in the classroom, said Scott Peska, director of Military Student Services. “Implementing these types of UD teaching strategies can be a real benefit to our men and women returning from service and taking classes at NIU.”

Faculty who want to begin incorporating UD principles should  consider some of these ideas:

  • Include information about CAAR and accessibility in course syllabi.
  • Use captioning with videos and other multi-media sources in and outside of the classroom.
  • Post lecture notes online.
  • Share  grading rubrics and/or models for written assignments.
  • Provide formative feedback on writing assignments.
  • Use varied instructional strategies (for example, lectures, videos, guest speakers, group activities) and assessment activities.
  • Adopt policies and procedures that address accessibility on the front end (for example, guidelines regarding technology that is accessible).

For more information about UD and other inclusive teaching principles, visit the PCPD webpage or email the Center for Access-Ability Resources at caar@niu.edu.

The PCPD webpage also includes a “Survey of Universal Design at NIU.” This self-assessment tool is designed to give individuals and programs greater insights into how they currently use UD. Taking the survey also can provide additional ideas for enhancing services and overall accessibility at little or no cost.

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