Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Universal Design?

I recently wrote a blog post on universal design but I don't think that I made a compelling case for why it is important so I want to elaborate. After the universal design webinar, a faculty member shared that she had a student who was deaf who actually dropped out of the program because she couldn't get the accommodations she needed. There was one general course in particular that included a lot of video that was not captioned. I don't know the details, but providing disability accommodations is a legal requirement. Universities can get sued for not being responsive to the needs of a student with a disability. Since I'm interested in people, I mostly wondered what it was like to be that student. It must have been very disheartening to realize that it was not going to be possible to take these courses. Did he or she totally drop out? Change their vocational plans altogether?

I have a student transcriptionist who is making a dent in the large pile of instructor videos that need transcripts. A big area that I think we can improve at UWEC is providing captioned versions of Hollywood movies that we stream (streaming is ok'd by our copyright office because they are in a password protected server). In the past, the answer to captioning was to provide the DVD to the student so he/she could watch the captioned version individually. I think we need to do better, especially for online courses. Online students are often not on campus so they may not be able to run over to McIntyre Library to check it out or stop by the instructor's office to pick it up. Also, what if it is checked out of the library? What if the instructor had purchased it and can't find it? This can put the student behind in his or her coursework, singles out the student as being different, causes the student to put in more effort than other students to obtain the same content, and gives the message that accessibility is not an important consideration.

Captions Help Others Too

The key with universal design is that these design strategies (captioning, in particular) help many people such as...
  • Students who may be hard of hearing but do not officially identify as having a disability; think about non-traditional, returning students in particular. 
  • Students who have not disclosed their disability, hoping it will not be a problem. Stigma is still an issue. There are definitely more students with disabilities on campus than those registered with the SSD office. 
  • International students who are good at comprehending written text but struggle with understanding native speakers of English. 
  • Anyone watching videos in which the speakers have strong accents. I use captions frequently when actors have accents to help me understand better and I do not have a hearing disability. Also, I recently met with a professor who was reluctant to create videos because of her accent, but when I said we could caption them she felt much better about it. 
  • Anyone in a situation where it is not possible/awkward to turn the audio on or up loud enough: sleeping roommate and no ear buds, in a computer lab with no speakers, on a bus, etc. I often use captions when I'm watching shows while exercising because I can't turn it up loud enough to cover the noise of the elliptical machine. 

What About a Transcript? 

Transcripts are often a good option: they can be helpful students are studying for exams after having watched the video, offer a different modality for students who prefer reading over listening/watching, and provide access to students who have slow internet or who have to pay for their data usage. However, DVD movies almost always need to be captioned because a transcript by itself is probably not going to be very meaningful.


Another universal design strategy is to provide options for students to meet course outcomes; does a student need to write a paper or could they respond with audio or video? The example that quickly came to mind here is my husband (who does not have a disability) has always been a strongly auditory person. Throughout college, I helped him with his papers, not because he didn't know the content but because he struggled with writing. For an English course, writing is important, but is it always necessary for biology? Could he provide an audio file instead with the required information? On the other hand, I would choose a written assignment over other modalities if given the choice.

An additional option is to provide just an audio file for a video, so that students could download it and listen while driving, for instance. Of course, the audio would have to stand alone from the visual aspects which may involve more words to describe visuals, or simply may not work well depending on the content. This also could be an accommodation for someone who is blind or who has low vision.

Making the Case for Universal Design

Sometimes it's difficult for me to stand up for these strategies because "real life" is usually not very accessible. For instance, we don't have every classroom session captioned or interpreted into sign language. We don't even have microphones in most classrooms. Many instructors say "well I've never had a student with a hearing disability, so don't bother with transcribing my videos." I've begun saying "you haven't had any students with hearing disabilities that you know of." It is important to note that students with disabilities may emanate more toward online courses in the hopes that their disability requires less accommodation in this modality. In this regard, I believe it's especially important to focus on universal design for online learning and ideally for hybrid courses since it can be a natural step to move to online or back to hybrid once instructional materials are created.

My hope is that eventually it isn't even necessary for most students with disabilities to disclose because courses are created using universal design strategies and that these strategies help students who do not have disabilities succeed as well.  

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