Universal Design

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Disability access and special education, by all accounts, are fairly young. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) just celebrated its 32nd anniversary. The first sweeping law that protected the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with all disabilities (PL 94-142) was passed in 1975. Thank you to all of those with and without disabilities, organizations, communities, and advocates who pushed for, and supported, the passage of both monumental laws.

Why put them together here? While I remember the passage of both of those laws and what happened afterward very clearly, I know there is still much work to be done. I am grateful for where all the pioneers of disabilities rights have led us and anxious for what is next for our communities, our schools, and all individuals with disabilities (and those without).

If you regularly intersect with AWS Foundation, you have no doubt heard the term Universal Design many times over the last few years. I thought this was a good opportunity to share the critical importance of Universal Design in both the community and educational arenas.

From a school perspective, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is not just about having access to education. It is about creating a school environment that is intentional for and engages with ALL students. UDL does not allow for ‘oops, I forgot to provide that accommodation’ but embraces creating an environment that is prepared to support students as they receive, interact, and engage in learning. UDL moved education from ‘inviting’ a student with a disability into the classroom to making the classroom a home base for all students.

Universal Design (UD) in terms of communities, buildings, and events equally raises the bar for our environments. It is no longer about how I make a special accommodation for you to access or participate, but how I make the environment appropriate and equitable so that anyone who chooses to can readily access or participate. UD is taking the basic requirements of ADA and putting the importance on intentionally creating spaces and places where all who enter are on a more than level playing field.

We know more than we did 32 and 47 years ago. ADA and PL 94-142 were groundbreaking laws, but moving forward is a must. We need to continue the course that so many fought so hard to be on. Good enough is not good enough – we need better.