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Rethinking the Educational Ecosystem

A Universal Design Approach

Dr Gerald Craddock
Senior Officer, Centre for Excellence in Universal Design
Dr Larry McNutt
Registrar, Technological University Dublin, Blanchardstown Campus

Universal design has the potential to transform the educational system to be an equitable and inclusive environment that celebrates the idea that ‘it’s normal to be different’, through co-designing a learning experience between the learner and the educators that is rewarding and empowering for all.

A vibrant school can nourish an entire community by becoming a source of hope and creative energy. … Poor schools can drain the optimism from all the students and families who depend on it by diminishing their opportunities for growth and development. (Robinson, 2015)


In the context of education, we rarely consider ourselves as designers. We have managers, quality assurance officers, educational technologists, professional services staff, senior administrators, professors, lecturers, teachers, heads of departments, educational developers, technicians, estate managers, sports officers, students’ union officers, chancellors, deans, directors, heads of school, and principals, all involved in design – but there is an inherent reluctance to call ourselves designers.

Yet we are all responsible for the design of the educational experience of all our learners. In Ireland, a recent Higher Education Authority report (HEA, 2019) suggests that our current design reproduces societal inequalities, while a UK study has shown how deeply these differences extend for people living in regional areas:

Rich and poor areas in Britain are not only divided by wealth, income or access to public services. The differences now extend into the very DNA of people living there. In some ways, this new inequality reaches deeper than before. As a society, we have not yet come to terms with this, or thought seriously enough about how to deal with it. It’s time we start.

While this paper recognises the complexity of educational systems, described by Snyder (2013) as multiple systems administered through a traditional approach, with the focus on top-down versus bottom-up initiatives, it argues that now is an opportune time to consider a more organic model. Such a model would focus on an ecological systems theory of human development and recognise the many layers of our environment that influence our development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Central to implementing this system, we suggest that a universal design approach can enable the transformation of education from an inequitable learning environment for many students to a more holistic, student-centric experience.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports ‘systematic challenges’ in global educational systems, such as under-resourced supports and an ad hoc division of responsibility across the government departments of education, health, and social protection, leading to too much focus on ‘special’ supports rather than inclusion and equity (WHO, 2011). There has also been a lack of legislation and targets on inclusion, compounded by school-level barriers including problems with physical access, inflexible and inappropriate curricula and pedagogy, inadequate teacher training, and discriminatory attitudes, which are seriously undermining inclusion and reinforcing marginalisation.

The WHO argues that a paradigm shift is needed to address these significant problems, moving away from just ‘accessibility’ – which provides basic access and usability of facilities, products, and services for people with disabilities – to a universal design (UD) approach that enables independence and social participation for all through continual improvement in all contexts.

The WHO’s International Classification of Function (ICF) offers a person-centred system to understand the functional ability of learners entering education in different contexts, through a useful distinction between performance and capacity. Common to the ICF, both UD and UDL (Universal Design for Learning) focus on the interaction between person and environment (Bencini et al., 2018). The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, 2006, endorses UD as the preferred approach to inclusion and advocates that it should frame national policies on the design of environments, products, services, and information communication technologies (ICT).

The concept of UD can be traced back to the internationally recognised architect, product designer, and educator Ron Mace in the USA in the 1970s. Mace, himself a wheelchair user, believed that architects should design environments to be ‘usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible’. He and his colleagues developed the Seven Principles of Universal Design to guide better and more inclusive design of environments, products, and ICT.

These principles are now widely used across the globe and here in Ireland and are the bedrock of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD), which was established through legislation in 2005. The legislation defines UD as ‘the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability’. In brief, the seven principles are:

Equitable use Design is accessible and useful for people with diverse abilities, e.g., information, products, and services in formats accessible for a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
Flexibility in use Design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities, e.g., the design provides a choice to read or listen in class or through a digital recording of the textbook.
Simple and intuitive Design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level, e.g., testing in a predictable, straightforward manner.
Perceptible information Design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities, e.g., an emergency alarm system with visual, aural, and kinaesthetic characteristics.
Tolerance for error Design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions, e.g., a software program that provides guidance when the student makes an inappropriate selection.
Low physical effort Design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue, e.g., software with on-screen control buttons that are large enough for students with limited fine motor skills to select easily.
Size and space for approach and use Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility, e.g., an adjustable table and work area that is usable by students who are right- or left-handed or have a wide range of physical characteristics and abilities.

A UD system recognises the multiple layers in the ecological framework that affect human development, in particular in the educational ecosystem, at multiple levels:

  • Micro level: Individual needs and abilities catered through teaching practices, classroom design and layout, and technologies, including assistive technologies. Learning resources and spaces, shifting the focus of education from institutional to individual learners, reorientating education towards the user and user involvement in the co-design of their own education.
  • Meso level: Institution level – covering governance, policies, and procedures, as well as linking to families and community-based initiatives, now known to be critical for growing and sustaining innovative learning.
  • Macro level: Establishing directives and legislative acts, developing standards, promoting awareness, and ensuring the diffusion of universal design and its adoption at national and local educational system levels.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was introduced into education by the work of Rose and Meyer, who recognised that many of the resources and adaptations needed for students with disabilities could be applied across the curriculum and would benefit all students. They wanted to improve education for all learners through innovative use of modern multimedia technology and contemporary research in the cognitive neurosciences.

UDL is a proactive method for designing and delivering flexible approaches to teaching and learning. It recognises that all students bring unique social and academic backgrounds to the classroom, and that disability lies not with the individual but with environments that are disabling. By understanding the why, what, and how of learning, it is possible to design materials and methods to accommodate all learners with a diverse range of abilities, characteristics, and preferences without the need to retrofit or remove the student from the classroom. Based on UD, the principles of UDL provide a framework to ensure:

  • multiple means of representation: give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • multiple means of expression: give learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know
  • multiple means of engagement: tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

In Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone (2019), Tobin and Behling argue that UD can enable many schools, colleges, and universities to move from simply ‘doing inclusion’ or ‘doing diversity’ to providing an inclusive learning experience that benefits all students, reducing barriers to learning while maintaining academic rigour.

These principles, when applied in whole or in part, can have profound effects on learners’ lives, experiences, and expectations. Because we must question our ‘taken for granted’ sense of reality – Jonathon Mooney (2019) writes eloquently of his own struggles with dyslexia: ‘I left that school asking myself, what do we miss – what do we wilfully ignore, misunderstand, fail to know – about ourselves and others when we make difference the problem. Everything, I think.’

The challenges of designing a modern education sector are global. In Ontario, ‘there has been no serious rethinking of the design of the entire post-secondary system by those in a position to do something about it since the 1960s’ (Clark et al., 2009, p. 16). In the US, Gilbert et al. (2018) write that ‘in the coming years, long-standing models of higher education that prefer tradition and stability will be supplemented, if not displaced, by new models that embrace organisational innovation, responsivity, and adaptation. Design thinking offers important pathways for shaping these important new models.’ In Ireland, CEUD has been developing UD and UDL guidance and standards through a range of initiatives, its motto being ‘It’s normal to be different’ (CEUD, 2017).

Why do we need universal design for education?

To date, mainstreaming has involved fitting students into a subject- and content-centred process, with the success of ‘integration’ or ‘participation’ measured against norms rather than individual ability and growth. The aim of inclusion, according to the HEART study (Howgego et al., 2014, p. 7), is to move beyond simply focusing on ‘access’ to an appropriate and responsive educational system, with fundamental changes in teaching and learning methods.

In Ireland, a report for the National Council of Special Education (NCSE) on the provision of assistive technology (AT) found the system to be reactive, slow, and failing to include the family and the opinions of the student. Rather than focusing on their functional needs, students must be assessed and diagnosed with a disability before the requisite technology is provided for access to the curriculum. The NCSE report says that many current problems could be alleviated and substantial monies saved by adopting a UD approach, where planning and designing an inclusive environment from the start ensures a supportive and inclusive educational journey for all students.

Craig Calhoun (2002, p. 6), referring to Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote extensively on education and its impact on social inequality, remarks:

His awareness of what his classmates and teachers did not see – because it felt natural to them – informed his accounts of the centrality of doxa – the preconscious taken-for-granted sense of reality that is more basic than any orthodoxy – and of misrecognition in producing and enabling social domination.

McLeskey et al. (2014) outline the following barriers that continue to exist in education for many students, including those with disabilities and other marginalised groups: a lack of understanding of inclusion among many educationalists, a failure to recruit and retain qualified staff, an inability to modify the curriculum or design new curriculum to ensure inclusivity, and the segregation of students such as those with significant intellectual and behavioural disabilities, who are often located in separate sites.

As Rose and Meyer (2005) write, current education systems are ineffective for students ‘at the margins’, particularly students with disabilities or exceptionally talented students. This paradoxically highlights the weaknesses in the current educational system and curricula that impede teaching and learning for all. Presently, children who are said to have ‘special’ education needs may be assigned to ‘special’ classrooms, schools, or other facilities, separating them from their peers and contributing further to their isolation.

‘Global inclusionism’, Le Fanu argues, has led to the withdrawal of support through the closure of special schools without first investing in the development of support systems for inclusive learning with the mainstream schools, leaving many children in a worse situation. UD transforms the pressures of diversity into opportunities for all learners, because it does not resist diversity as the traditional curriculum, largely centred on the printed, by insisting that all learners fit the one mould. Instead, UD recognises that diversity in learning abilities and styles can be an important asset if educationists are willing to reconsider how curricula and schools are designed and how teaching is practised.

Marmot suggests ‘proportionate universalism’: that we resource and deliver universal services at a scale and intensity proportionate to need. This approach aims to improve education for the whole population, while simultaneously improving the education of the most disadvantaged at a faster rate. It recognises the continuum of need and the greater needs of some, resulting from social, cultural, and economic disadvantage. It requires understanding of the impact of social inequalities on educational outcomes, while recognising that the educational journey needs to be designed to be universal.

Central to Marmot’s view is the recognition that disadvantage starts before birth and accumulates throughout life. It acknowledges the importance of policy objectives that prioritise giving every child the best start in life, with all children and adults given the opportunity to maximise their capabilities, control over their lives, a chance of fair employment, and a healthy standard of living, while developing sustainable places and communities.

The future

In designing environments that are universal, inclusive, and integrated, it is simply more cost-effective to have a range of technology in place (Wynn et al., 2016). Providing mainstream technologies that have built-in accessibility features such as voice recognition, text-to-speech output, modifications such as Braille and alternative formats to print will substantially decrease the costs and time of individual assistive-technology solutions.

Class design can include ‘breakout spaces’ for children who may have behavioural issues, as well as adaptations to physical spaces such as ramps, accessible toilets, and sound-field systems. Supports for students in classrooms such as note takers need to be mainstreamed as a provision for all students as a more cost-effective solution. In many respects, proactive changes in a UD framework can transform the educational environment. A good example of this is the Access Inclusion Model (AIM), developed and implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which takes universal as the starting point.

Responding to these design challenges as a collective rather than a hyper-competitive sector is worth greater consideration. To achieve this ambition, we must bridge the gap between knowing and doing. Knowing how to do something is easy today, but being prepared to bring a potentially magical experience to our audience of learners is very different. This was a key theme of the international congress Universal Design and Higher Education in Transformation, held in Dublin in 2018 (UDHEIT, 2018).

We must be committed, connected, and generous and design the equivalent of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ of educational experiences for all our learners (McNutt, 2015). Ireland’s newest university designed its campus on UD principles, and Technological University Dublin was honoured to receive the Recognition of Excellence Award from CEUD for its three founding institutions, IT Blanchardstown, DIT, and IT Tallaght and the university’s ongoing commitment to embed UD at macro, meso, and micro levels. It is interesting to note that the HEA reported recently that the ‘socio-economic profile of the student body at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown (now part of Technological University, Dublin) most closely mirrors that of the national population’ (HEA, 2019).

An ambitious agenda at an important juncture in Irish history in how we address the inherent systemic inequalities in our design of education provision will have profound implications for generations to come. To bring about the necessary change, our response must be emotional – we must feel the need for change and challenge our own values, beliefs, and assumptions.


Bencini, G., Garofolo, I., and Arenghi, A. (2018) ‘Implementing universal design and the ICF in higher education’. In: G. Craddock et al. (eds.) Transforming Our World Through Design, Diversity and Education. IOS Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development. Harvard University Press.

Calhoun, C. (2002) ‘Pierre Bourdieu, the Centrality of the Social, and the Possibility of Politics’. University of Pennsylvania Ethnohistory Workshop.

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) (2017) ‘Meet the Normals – Adventures in Universal Design’. YouTube video. Uploaded 10 March 2017.

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) (2019)

Clark, I., Moran, G., Skolnik, M., and Trick, D. (2009) Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario. McGill-Queens University Press.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2019) Access and Inclusion Model (AIM).

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Hugh-Jones, D. and Abdellaoui, A. (2019) ‘Inequality now extends to people’s DNA’. The Conversation, 21 October.

Le Fanu, G. (2014) ‘International development, disability, and education: Towards a capacities-focused discourse and praxis’, International Journal of Educational Development, 38, 69–79.

Marmot, M. (2010) The Marmot Review into Health Inequalities in England.

McLeskey , J. (2014) Handbook of Effective Inclusive Schools: Research and Practice. Routledge Handbooks Co.

McNutt, L. (2015) ‘Reframing higher education the Wild Atlantic Way: A personal reflection’, All Ireland Journal of Higher Education, 7(1), February.

Mooney, J. (2019) Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines. Henry Holt and Co.

Robinson, K. (2015) Creative Schools. Random House Publishing

Rose, D. and Meyer, A. (2005) The Universally Designed Classroom: Accessible Curriculum and Digital Technologies. Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D., Meyer, A., and Gordon, D. (2014) Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. CAST Publishing.

Snyder, S. (2013) ‘The simple, the complicated, and the complex: Educational reform through the lens of complexity theory’. OECD Education Working Papers, no. 96. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Tobin, T. and Behling, K. (2019) Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone. West Virginia University Press.

Universal Design and Higher Education in Transformation Congress (UDHEIT) (2018) UDHEIT2018 Conference, Dublin Castle, 30 October to 2 November 2018.

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Wynn, R., McAnaney, D., MacKeogh, T., Stapleton, P., Delaney, S., Dowling, N., and Jeffares, I. (2016) ‘Assistive Technology/Equipment in Supporting the Education of Children with Special Educational Needs – What Works Best?’ Research Report no. 22. Trim, Ireland: National Council for Special Education (NCSE).

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