As a college student, Eric Bell would visit his classrooms before the first day of a new semester. He would make sure his wheelchair could enter the building and get to his class, and that he had a desk and a writing surface ready to use. If not, it was his responsibility to reach out to the disability resources office on campus for accommodation.
“It was my own due diligence that provided the level of access that I felt was appropriate,” he says.
Now a physical access consultant at the University of Arizona, Bell works with his colleagues in the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to ensure that students with disabilities can “show up on day one just like everybody else,” with easy access and multiple choices for where they want to sit in the classroom.
“There should be disabled students sitting shoulder to shoulder with nondisabled students, not sitting by yourself by the door and the garbage can, barely in the room,” Bell says.
Colleges and universities follow guidelines from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires equal access to physical spaces and learning opportunities.
But compliance with ADA guidelines is the bare minimum that campuses can do to support their students, says Amanda Kraus, assistant vice president for campus life and executive director of the DRC. This minimal support often relies on special accommodations that—especially when made at the last minute—can be extremely stressful for both students and faculty, leading some students to avoid taking future classes with the same faculty member or in the same location.
To ensure access and support for as many students as possible—including both disabled and nondisabled students—the DRC has partnered with the Office of Instruction and Assessment (OIA), the Office of Facilities Management, and faculty across the university’s twenty colleges to redesign curricula, cocurricular experiences, and physical campus spaces according to principles of universal design.
“Universal design is bigger than disability,” Kraus says. “It’s about promoting equity on campus. It’s about a better, higher-quality experience that is more inclusive and welcoming.”
Redesigning the University Experience during COVID-19
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University of Arizona to shut down the campus in March, faculty had just five business days and a weekend to adapt their courses for a virtual format. In this shift toward “crisis remote teaching,” faculty reached out to the DRC and the OIA in unprecedented numbers.
“How higher education and individual campuses are responding to the pandemic is a case study in universal design,” says Amanda Kraus, assistant vice president for campus life and executive director of the Disability Resources Center.
As they were inundated with questions, staff in the DRC and the OIA collaborated to ensure that, whatever question a faculty member had, it could be answered on the spot.
“Everyone has their area of expertise,” says Dawn Hunziker, senior IT accessibility consultant at the DRC. “By no stretch of the imagination am I an instructional designer. But I can talk about accessibility, and I can point them to someone who can talk about instructional design.”
As faculty rushed to redesign their courses, many “fell back on traditional structures of a course,” says Lisa Elfring, assistant vice provost of the OIA and associate professor of molecular and cellular biology. “What are the lectures? What is the homework? What are the quizzes?”
But after a couple of weeks, some faculty realized that traditional structures weren’t serving all of their students.
“If I rely on my fifty minutes of biology class time to lecture, that’s not a good use of students’ time even if we are meeting in person,” Elfring says. “But it’s an even worse idea if classes are meeting through technology.”
Many universal design best practices simply ask faculty to be more flexible. Instead of requiring synchronous attendance for class sessions, for example, faculty can provide recordings with closed captioning. On exam days, faculty can let students take tests over several hours instead of at a set time. These small changes extend benefits beyond disabled students, supporting students who may speak English as a second language, live in different time zones, have jobs or complicated home lives, struggle to connect to the internet, act as caregivers for family, or suffer from extreme exam anxiety.
“Which is a huge percentage of students,” Elfring says.
While faculty often design courses with a “normal student” in mind, there’s no such thing, Elfring says. Students all have different preferences or needs. Faculty can deliver course content in multiple formats to help students with different learning styles and preferences.
When using an image or a graph in a presentation, for example, instructors can explain what the image shows and what its purpose is. This not only helps students who may have cognitive or visual disabilities but also improves learning for all students.
“If I’m a student that looks down to take notes, I don’t miss what the instructor is saying,” says Cheryl Muller, associate director of the DRC. “By describing what’s on the screen verbally as well as visually, it’s really increasing the knowledge of all students.”
At a large university like Arizona with thousands of faculty, it’s impossible to mandate these universal design best practices for everyone. Instead, staff from the DRC and the OIA have to find ways to reach as many faculty as possible.
“We hustle—that’s how we do our work,” Kraus says.
DRC staff speak at orientations for new faculty and teaching assistants. They have faculty and staff partners within the university’s twenty colleges, and they regularly invite themselves to faculty meetings and hold brown bag lunches. And when a faculty member reaches out for help, they build that first interaction into an ongoing partnership.
“A lot of our best work, the best relationships that we build, begin around an individual accommodation or a situation in a classroom,” Kraus says. “And then we build rapport.”
The OIA reaches faculty through a wide range of professional development courses, workshops, and webinars. While these events rarely have universal design as the primary focus, presenters always push faculty to consider universal design as they create new learning experiences.
“We encourage folks all over campus to take whatever is in their purview—whether that’s designing a course, a policy, a building, or an event—and really think about the widest range of people who might engage with that experience,” Hunziker says.
Every spring, the DRC works with event organizers to ensure activities are accessible for everyone. The campus’s large events—a festival of books, a spring carnival, the twenty-four convocations each semester, and a massive commencement—are often the easiest to support.
“We know they’re coming,” Kraus says. Reaching smaller cocurricular events, field trips, and experiential learning opportunities can be more difficult. To get funding from student government, representatives from student organizations must receive training on universal design and inclusive event planning. And the DRC works closely with study abroad and experiential learning programs to help hosting organizations provide access for students.
Recently, Bell collaborated with the College of Nursing to ensure a wheelchair user had access to required clinical experiences. By working with hospitals, “we were able to tailor an experience for him that is identical to what his classmates are getting, but in an area of a hospital that was much more accessible,” Bell says.
As the pandemic put a stop to on-campus events, universal design guidelines have carried over to the virtual environment. The university now provides closed captioning, sign language interpreters, and audio descriptions for virtual commencements, homecoming, and the president’s weekly address.
For years, the DRC has worked alongside the Office of Facilities Management to redesign buildings and classrooms.
“More access benefits everybody,” Bell says. “It’s not just a wheelchair user that pushes that door-opening button. It’s an art student with a huge portfolio. It’s a food service worker with a catering cart.”
They ensure that classroom workstations are familiar for faculty and staff by using a consistent look and installing the same software in different classrooms. Projectors have easy-to-use controls with physical buttons, and the workstations are height adjustable.
“This makes a huge difference not only for someone who uses a wheelchair but also for someone who’s really tall or a bit shorter, or who may need to sit,” Hunziker says. “Everybody can adjust that workstation to be at a comfortable height.
As students have begun returning to classrooms during the pandemic, Bell has worked with an interior designer over AutoCAD to create new diagrams for all 240 of the classrooms centrally controlled by the university. By following the diagrams, facilities crews moved around tables and chairs to keep students safely spaced out. While these changes are required during the pandemic as a safety precaution, the additional space is also a best practice to ensure accessibility.
“There are parts of this that I hope stick around,” Bell says. “I would love to see a world where we’re not packing fifty students into a room that really should have twenty.”
Elfring agrees that the evolution over the last nine months could lead to lasting change across campus. “I hope that, having experienced that universal design just makes it more inclusive for everyone, people will keep using these strategies even after they return to campus,” she says. “I think that’s a silver lining of a really, really dark cloud.”’