Part 3: Flexibility of Use, the second principle of Universal Design
by Antonia Levy & Christopher Leydon

Welcome back, dear followers, to a fresh New Year’s edition of UD Nosh! This month, we’ll be discussing the second principle of Universal Design (UD): Flexibility in Use. Generally speaking, this means that the design of any product should accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Flexible design seeks to:

  • Provide choice in methods of use
  • Accommodate right- and left-handed access and use
  • Facilitate user accuracy and precision
  • Provide adaptability of the user space.
Pruners for left and right handed use

Image source: http://www.ncsu.edu

Practical examples for this principle include not only the familiar architectural features like  restrooms and other facilities that are physically accessible to individuals who use wheelchairs or face other mobility challenges, but also consumer items like scissors or computer mice made for both left and right handed users.

This UD principle is important because design that fails to provide flexibility in use can lead to problems that are hard to fix later on. One enormous example of this kind of failure is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which accommodates cars, trucks, and busses. Yet when it was build fifty years ago, no provision was made for a rail link between Brooklyn and Staten Island, nor for use by pedestrians or cyclists. The latter is currently being considered though it entails an expensive retrofit.

An emphasis on flexibility when designing products or environments brings into focus the difference between accessible (or barrier free) design and universal design. While the former is legally mandated to permit access for those who may be excluded because of a disability, universal design aims at inclusiveness in a broader and more integrated sense.

“Universal design places increased emphasis on the critical goal of meeting the needs of as many users as possible. … By increasing the number of people whose needs are being addressed in a single design solution, universal design encourages an integrative approach rather than multiple separate solutions.” (The Center for Universal Design)

In a university environment, disability services offices are usually tasked with primary responsibility for providing support to students with disabilities. This approach is based on the accommodation model, in which reactive adjustments are made by request to render an educational environment accessible to an individual with a disability. (In the case of a faculty or staff member, such requests are submitted to the human resources office, which arranges for reasonable workplace accommodations.) By contrast, a proactive UDL approach promotes the expanded goal of making these environments welcoming and inclusive from the start to groups that are diverse in many dimensions, including gender, race and ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, ability, or learning style. Such consideration on the front end helps prevent the need to redesign down the road when a user arrives on campus and indicates the lack of accessibility.

Accessible classroom chairs and furniture

Image source: https://www.ideo.com

More concrete examples include UDL-inspired classroom furniture such as tablet desks that can accommodate both left and right handed users or height-adjustable tables that can easily accommodate a range of user sizes and preferences. Furniture that can be readily moved allows us flexibility for different learning activities and student groupings. For staff, allowing for various delivery methods of documents to the school (by mail, fax, hand delivery, web form, or email attachment) or of paychecks to employees (by mail, direct deposit, or pickup) are consistent with the practice of flexibility in use. The School’s new website includes responsive design elements in its code (HTML5 and CSS3) that allow for automatic re-sizing to accommodate access from phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. Blackboard, our learning management system, is also available through mobile app. And even CUNYFirst has features that provide accessibility and flexibility of use.

This principle applies as much to teaching and learning—whether online or in a brick-and-mortar classroom—as it does to the physical campus. The diversity of students we encounter include a variety of learning styles and preferences: Learners might differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information, the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know, as well as in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. By utilizing varied instructional methods to include different modes of learning and different learning preferences, we not only meet the needs of students with the greatest barriers, but also improve access for a wide range of learners.

If you are curious, check out this questionnaire by VARK Learn to find out about your own learning preferences. Instructors could use the questionnaire as an icebreaker during the first week of classes to start a discussion with students about the way you teach and they learn.

This article is part of an ongoing series introducing the concept of Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each month we cover one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next month! Questions or feedback? Email Antonia Levy or Christopher Leydon.

References
Darby, Alexa (n.d.). Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom. National Education Association (NEA): http://www.nea.org/home/34693.htm (Accessed January 11, 2016).
The Center for Universal Design, NCSU (n.d.) Introduction to Universal Design. https://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/sites/cud/content/UD_intro.html (Accessed January 11, 2016).

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