Why everyone should understand the term Universal Design for Learning

Why everyone should understand the term Universal Design for Learning

In New Zealand, 1 in 5 or around 20 percent of the population live with a disability. When we think of the term “disability” we tend to picture those in wheelchairs, with physical or maybe we think of those with intellectual disabilities. However, there is a large group of people we fail to think of, or we may not even think come under the banner of disability. This group of people have specific learning disabilities or an SLD. Things that fall under this category include; dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. SLD’s tend to go unnoticed, can be invisible, and therefore are invisible to the world.

Besides the fact that those who have SLD’s may be given extra assistance at school or further education, what happens when someone with an SLD goes into the work force? Furthermore, what happens when anyone who doesn’t conform with mainstream learning goes into the workforce, those who may be deaf or blind, have physical impairments and so on? The answer is: not a lot. A significant number of people with SLD’s end up self-employed, as that enables them to work within their talents. So as an employer, we need to consider our employees, future employees and our clients when we communicate with them.

Ensuring that all your employees and clients can understand what you are saying is key to a successful business.  I worked for an organisation once that thought it a good idea to have a quirky image and quote printed as a watermark on reports to clients (a letter was so last century). When drafting a report for a visually impaired client I had to insist (forcefully) that it be removed, as it hindered readability. What I hadn’t realised that other clients were struggling with it as well. I recall one telephoned and asked what the paper said because parts were unreadable. I felt pretty lame having to explain it was a watermark of no particular significance. Fortunately, the firm eventually realised the error of their ways.

Employees, if they have developed good strategies throughout their life, or use assistive technology can function in an environment that is catered to an imaginary ‘average’ person. Some can function extremely well, but we must remember that a lot of hard work goes on to get there. We often just assume that someone we employ can take notes, write coherent reports, can make sense of a jargon filled document. We assume that our client understands our advice. However, it is not always the case.

Imagine a building with stairs leading up to its entrance. How accessible is that for someone in a wheelchair? Now imagine that same building with a ramp instead. Not only can somebody using a wheelchair access the building (the obvious solution for access), but so can a parent with a pram, an elderly person with a walker, and the blind person with a cane. Now our building is universally accessible. It is this idea we can take and make applicable to learning and communication: universal design for learning (UDL).

There are several small additions that can be made in any work place to make the environment more accessible to all. Googling ‘universal design Microsoft Office’, will bring up a number of pages on how to format documents for accessibility for a wide range of users. Something as simple as, using the built in headers in Word, can make a huge difference to how someone accesses a document. If a document is formatted correctly at its initial creation, accessibility will be maintained, even when converted. An accessible word document becomes an accessible PDF document, negating the need for retrofitting later on.

Here’s some useful hints when publishing your next document, report or announcement to make it more user friendly:

  • Don’t rely on colour or font to convey important messages – not everyone can see the colour or font changes
  • Don’t use overly ornate or complex scripts
  • Don’t use small print
  • Ensure that the contrast colours of script and background enhance the ability to read it
  • Explain information in different ways, a picture may not make sense to all your readers, consider adding explanations or descriptions. Words may be easier or harder to understand than say pictures or tables
  • Use tables that are clear and succinct
  • Use headings to change topics or point to important information

Next time you have a spare 5 minutes, search up UDL and see what small changes you can make to how your workplace operates and communicates. You never know, productivity, performance and client satisfaction may just increase.

Posted: Friday 29 January 2016