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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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UDL in 15 Minutes podcast with Kelley Correio and Laurie Sarver

Removing barriers – Part 1

A solid concept that drives Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the removal of barriers. Kelley Correio and Laurie Sarver touch on that topic in this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes. In my opinion (since there isn’t any specific research on this concept, it is an opinion) that mindset seems to be a barrier to the adoption UDL. To help shift that mindset, let’s first define what barriers are.

A barrier is something the learner experiences that prevents them from learning. That is a pretty straight forward sentence. Typically, the concept of a barrier is introduced as a physical barrier since those can be experienced by almost everyone. A set of stairs is a barrier to anyone using a wheeled object (e.g., a wheelchair, a scooter, a stroller, a suitcase with wheels, a skateboard, roller skates, and the list goes on). Why are stairs a barrier? Because the person is either prevented from or significantly delayed from getting to whatever is on the other side of those stairs.

Here’s the next part. The stairs were built into the building. They were part of the original plan. They were purposefully placed there. That purposeful placement doesn’t mean that the architectural firm said to themselves, “We want to keep all people using wheeled objects out of our building;” rather, the architectural firm probably wasn’t even thinking about people who use wheeled objects. Their purposeful placement did not think about all of the potential users of that building. Instead, they needed to be intentionally inclusive in their design. They needed to intentionally add in physical accessibility.

Lots of building owners have added in ramps after the building was built. And while it does provide accessibility, those designs are often cumbersome and sometimes unsafe. For example, ramps are added to the back of buildings. That means people have to go across uneven pavement, through mud, or across otherwise difficult terrain to get to the ramp. In some cases, the stairs have a roof over them, they have a tread on them, or they are designed so they are not slippery. The added-on ramps are not covered or are made of materials that become slippery when they are wet. Not only is the inclusion of a ramp an afterthought, the design of the ramp itself does not take into account the user.

To truly lower the barrier (and lower means lessening it to the point that everyone can access what is beyond that barrier), there needs to be upfront planning. What do I mean by that? Maybe a ramp is added in alongside the stairs. Or maybe, the stairs become a ramp like in the design of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City or the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. Those architects and designers knew they wanted everyone to access the museum, regardless of how they move around.

So, we’re up to three things that are truly needed when we talk about lowering barriers.

  1. Identify the barrier up front. Will that object, activity, or behavior prevent someone else from participating?
  2. From the beginning, plan how to lower that barrier. Think of how you could shift that object, activity or behavior to ensure everyone can participate. This might involve adding other objects or activities. In the case of behaviors, it usually just means shifting the behavior.
  3. Always base your decisions on the experience the other person will have. For example, the angle of the ramp needs to be such that people can use it easily and without fear. Just putting a ramp over a set of stairs does not consider the safe experience of the users.

Suggestion number 3 comes from the concept of design thinking, but I like to think about it from the point of view of giving presents. There are two types of present givers: the people who give presents to make themselves feel better and the people who give presents based on what the recipient likes. You know the former. Those are the people that watch you open their gift on your birthday and say, “We went on this really cool tour and loved these magnets!” You don’t collect magnets. You don’t put magnets on your refrigerator. And worse, you don’t like the magnet. But, being a polite person, you smile and say thank you, but this gift was more about make them happy than making you happy.

When you are the second kind of gift giver, you are aligned with number 3. You are the person who gives presents based on what the recipient likes. In the context of this conversation, we are not talking about presents. This is about recognizing the humanity of the other person. Lowering barriers says to the other person, “I see you. I value you. I know you can learn this.”

This blog is part one of (I think) a two-part series on barriers. It might become three parts. We’ll see.

Hopefully, you understand the three parts of barriers and have started to consider how you can apply this in your learning environment. Part two is going to go into the specifics of lesson and learning environment planning and what you can do up front to lower barriers for all of your learners. Barriers, intentional or unintentional, need to be removed for the same reason – without barriers, our learners have greater opportunities to become expert learners.