Universal design in Inclusive Education

Amalie Quevedo

Every child has a right to an education. An education that is inclusive and that values every learner. 

Amalie Quevedo is part of our International Technical team. She explores how Universal Design is an essential part of inclusive education.

A group of school children in a classroom

The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report says that we should celebrate diversity. We need to see diversity in every classroom around the world. Every learner matters and no one should be discriminated against. For every child to be able to develop and progress, the lessons themselves need to inclusive. 

Recommendation 7 of the 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report talks about Universal Design. This is a design that stems far beyond how a building or classroom looks. It stems right into the curriculum and lesson plans. For every child to fulfil their potential, curriculums must be accessible and flexible. With a Universal Design, children can be on more of a level playing field. That means children of all abilities have the opportunity to succeed equally. 

What does Universal Design look like?

Universal Design helps children to learn the same school content as each other. It presents it in ways that are accessible to different learning needs.

This kind of content focuses on children’s diverse interests. It adapts to their different learning styles and levels of ability. This makes it possible for children with disabilities to thrive in school. Universal Design is also a driving force to fight against discriminatory attitudes. These attitudes can often be found in communities and are a barrier to education. Universal Design also expands beyond the classroom. It’s about accessible buildings, transport and technology too. 

Training schools and teachers on applying Universal Design

For Universal Design to be a success, teachers need to have the right skills. They need to able to use technology and adapt their teaching materials and methods. Proper training in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help with this. 

Teachers play an essential role in making sure all their students can succeed. They have the responsibility to remove any barriers to learning and participation. The teacher and learning environment must be flexible. It needs to be able to complement every students’ strengths and needs.

But really, the whole school should also be trained to identify and remove barriers that challenge inclusion. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is negative attitudes towards children seen as different. So we need to introduce strategies that change this.

We can also use Parent Support Groups, Child-to-Child Clubs, and Community Education as ways to show that everyone belongs. Including children with disabilities. After all, as the African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”.

In Tanzania, the child-to-child club realised how difficult it was for one of the learners to get to school. She is a wheelchair user. Her village is more than three kilometres from the school, and the road is bad. Now the children take turns in arranging transport for her so that she can be in school with them every day.

Piloting Universal Design in Kenya

At Leonard Cheshire, we work with children with disabilities worldwide. We are piloting the concept of Universal Design in our Girls Education Challenge Transition project in Kenya. We have made sure the curriculum is accessible for varying needs. We’ve also introduced assistive technology for children with visual and intellectual disabilities. Teachers are also trained to apply Universal Design in their day to day teaching. This means all students will be able to take part in the same lesson. They will just be at different levels and through adapted materials.

Students with visual impairments can be supported by technology, such as the Orbit reader to type and read braille. This means they have access to a broader range of books. Teachers can also benefit from this technology. When connected to computers, they can easily read and mark work written in braille. This incredible tool is so useful in making any learning environment inclusive.

Removing physical barriers 

It goes without saying that physical access is also essential. Often school buildings and even public roads make it impossible for some people to get into the school in the first place. Universal Design promotes working with communities to identify and remove these barriers.

Our inclusive education project in Zambia is an excellent example of this. During the coronavirus lockdown, the project has been consulting schools and communities. Together, they have been carrying out vital school adaptations. Bathrooms, water holes and classrooms have now been made accessible for students. Perhaps one of the most significant feats was involving district officers in the project. The Ministry of Education now realises the importance of Universal Design. Moving forward, we want accessibility to be central to any plans for new buildings or renovations. This will ensure every child can attend school with his or her peers.

Expanding access to assistive technology for children with disabilities 

Assistive technology is a critical game-changer for children with disabilities. It makes it possible for children with visual and hearing impairment to learn. Even in schools that are remote and poorly equipped, this could help. This is especially during crisis times like the coronavirus lockdown.

Our pilot in Kenya has shown how important it is to integrate assistive technology into the classroom and day-to-day life. That includes training teachers, learners and county officials and raising awareness amongst families. During lockdown, we spoke to teachers and parents to see what was already available and how we could help. We were then able to develop short training modules to be delivered over the phone or on Whatsapp. We used this time to train teachers and students on inclusive materials like braille.

Universal Design requires many elements, including the participation from teachers, students and communities. Together, they can help reduce “exclusion within and from education”. Only then can every student have the same opportunities to succeed.