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Accessibility and Universal Design

This month, Amanda, Jeremy, Dustin, and I are going to write about issues, events, and opportunities related to the concept of accessibility.


This is what I picture when I hear “universal design.”

Accessibility is something to which we all have a different set of relationships. For instance, we may perceive ourselves as someone to whom the term is addressed, we may believe that accessibility is something that pertains to everyone universally, or we may believe that it applies in our customer service or teaching. We may take an activist or scholarly approach to accessibility and related topics. There certainly is a lot of activity going on around accessibility at Queen’s campus in terms of administrative efforts, scholarship, and activism.

If you’re a returning student you’ve likely already completed an online accessible customer service training module, which is mandatory in compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). When I was enrolled in SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education this past winter (where I met Jeremy), I learned of another module available to us—in fact, the module is publicly available—which can be easily located in the Queen’s Equity Office website. The module, Accessible Instruction for Educators, was developed by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in response to the Ontario Government’s requirement for educators under the AODA.

I’m spending this post talking about it and sharing the link to encourage you to do it, even if you’re not currently teaching, because these questions about accessibility—one that always occurs to me is: what was a resource or service called before it was labeled accessible?—are broadly relevant, for instance in tasks that cross domains, such as design. In fact, the Accessible Instruction for Educators module addresses these two ideas directly:

Accessible instruction is most often referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is based on the principles of universal design pioneered by architect Ronald Mace in the 1980s. Mace advocated for the design of buildings to be as accessible to as many people as possible. This has led to wider doorways, standardized heights for electrical outlets and switches, door handles that don’t require gripping and twisting. These principles expanded beyond the built environment to design in other fields.

So if things are designed to be universally accessible in the first place, whether it’s a building or a curriculum, then it’s less likely they’ll need to be modified later; this is one way of conceptualizing the difference between accessibility and accommodation. One idea that stuck with me in particular had to do with print and web design, and not getting too fancy with your fonts.


Check out this resource on effective colour contrast. I think this stuck with me first because I’m language oriented and then because reflecting on these perceptual differences—ones that affect everyone who uses a visual modality—gave me some insight into how small lags in processing can add up to significant differences in understanding and finding meaning and enjoyment in educational materials. If my thought before was something like “yes, it’s annoying for me to distinguish a red/green text/background combo, but it’s possible” my thought now is something more like “how much time might be saved if things were as clearly represented as possible from the get-go?” Another important question, though, is “how much humour and other cultural value is lost when things aren’t clearly represented?” Check out this neat post on memes and accessibility.


I've tested myself to see just how difficult it is to give a description of this meme for users with screen readers that doesn't totally kill the funny.

I’ve tested myself to see just how difficult it is to give a description of this meme for users with screen readers that doesn’t totally kill the funny.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with accessibility, whether it’s about designing your course or being a student in someone else’s course, offering or receiving customer service, navigating the physical or virtual campus, scholarship or activism around accessibility, or anything else. Feel free to comment on this post or send us a note at gradify@queensu.ca.

Stay tuned next week for Amanda’s post on Queen’s Accessibility Hub and remember that we’re always looking for your feedback on what you’d like us to cover in upcoming posts.

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2 comments on “Accessibility and Universal Design
  1. Colette says:

    Love this guys. Lots of information here as well as making us think more about how accessible is our world.

  2. scott fulton says:

    In my early engineering days I was a Stress Analyst (in Kingston) and that meant bridges and structures people. Ten years later, people associated it with psychology. These days I use Universal Design for architectural aspects of people spaces, but that term is well on the way to being associated with learning methodology. The author here had an impression it had something to do with our universe.
    The migration of labels is unlikely a coincidence, but rather and outcome of cross functional communications that speak to concepts, which are far more value and universal in their application. A good thing largely, but also a bit confusing for those finding themselves talking to a psychologist about a bridge assessment.
    Either way, Universal is inclusive by definition, and provided that doesn’t somehow come to have negative connotations, then I’m certain we’ll all fumble along somehow to the place we’re intended to be.

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