I spent today at a conference hosted by (one of) my employer(s) Claro Learning, which provides support for learners with disabilities. The keynote speaker was Dr Sheryl Burgstahler, a professor from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. Her area of expertise is the use of technology and other programs to support disabled students.
She gave a very brief outline of the history of helping disabled people in higher education. Originally there was no special help, disabled people were excluded from mainstream education by default. Eventually, there was a process of ‘accommodation’. That is, adaptations were made to existing practices to make them more suitable for disabled students e.g. adding wheelchair ramps to buildings, putting information in braille, the use of assistive technology etc.
However, she does not consider the accommodation approach good enough. Consider the following object:
It would be possible to adapt this coffeepot* to make it safe and usable. You could lift off the top and pour through there. You could add some piping to the spout that then curved round to the other side of the pot. But it would be preferable to design it properly in the first place.
Dr Burgstahler argued that the accommodation approach can be a bit like this: making piecemeal adaptations afterwards to an education system poorly designed for disabled students. It would be better, by far, to design education from the outset so that it is usable for disabled (as well as fully abled) students. This philosophy, “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”, is called Universal Design.
The conference had many other interesting talks, many from disabled people themselves. We do not as a society give enough thought to the needs of the disabled and the problems they face. I’m sure this will be a subject I return to when I restart my enabling job in the next academic year.
*I won’t insult you by explaining why it’s an appallingly designed object