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>  News Releases >   2002 >   January

Including students with disabilities: Courses are more accessible with 'Universal Design'

Posted 01/10/02, by Amanda Weatherman

Thanks partly to the information age and partly to new ways of thinking, a group of Dartmouth faculty members are learning new tools for teaching that can benefit all students while improving learning for students with disabilities. Those tools are what speakers described at a December workshop at Dartmouth, "Teaching All Students: Using Universal Instructional Design to Reach a Diverse Student Body." Twenty-seven faculty members from 20 Dartmouth departments and programs attended.

The workshop was funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, which will also pay for similar workshops at Stanford, Brown, Harvard and Columbia. Nancy Pompian, Student Disabilities Coordinator at the Academic Skills Center and organizer of the workshop, was excited by the discussion about classroom strategy.

She gave the following hypothetical situation to illustrate the issues at hand: Say a student with dyslexia takes a philosophy course. She grasps all the concepts and is getting a good grade, but she doesn't write well because of her disability. What adaptive procedures are appropriate? Should she take an oral final exam instead of an essay exam? Is good writing a part of her grade? Should the decision be made by the professor or by the department? And what if she's a brilliant student? She's going to get an A, but the professor's standard procedure is to lower her grade for taking an oral exam instead of an essay exam? What's fair to this student and the others in the class? Should the course be designed so the professor never has to decide between a B or a C when the student worked hard enough for an A?

Enter Universal Design. It started in the architectural world with curb cuts and automatic doors, so people in wheelchairs could get into the grocery store, the library, anywhere. Choices in exam formats are like academic "ramps" for students who need them. The time-honored essay exam could be compared to a staircase: undoubtedly useful, but not for everyone.

Other classroom techniques discussed at the workshop included:

  • finding out students' prior knowledge on the subject.
  • creating visual presentations of materials.
  • encouraging study groups.
  • giving e-mail or web-based quizzes to avoid pop quizzes.
  • telling students what is essential and what is not essential in the course.
  • putting the syllabus online before the class starts.
  • having the library put reserve articles on the web site.
  • integrating online discussion groups.

Faculty members worked in small groups to examine their syllabi and pinpoint what was essential to learn the material.

"It was illuminating for them to write down the essential components, so they didn't make unconscious assumptions," Pompian said. The afternoon session about technology resources was led by Dartmouth's Sarah Horton, Instructional Technology Specialist in Computing Services. She illustrated how software programs can read a syllabus, handout, even a book out loud to a blind or dyslexic student, provided the text is in digital form.

Faculty members, with help from Dartmouth's Office of Academic Computing, can design web sites so a student can enlarge the text and change colors to accommodate visual disorders, among other things. Professors can also use films transferred from VHS to digital form to incorporate captions for deaf students.

"Just converting course materials to digital format adds enormous flexibility," Horton said. She is designing a web site, which accompanies a DMS anatomy course, incorporating many of these principles. See

"I ended up showing people what folks are doing online," she said, "showing them course web sites, showing them Blackboard (a suite of tools for putting course content online without having to write HTML pages). That was really intriguing to people."

Presenters included, besides Pompian and Horton, Lydia Block, a learning disabilities consultant who developed services for students with disabilities at The Ohio State University for 14 years, and Robert Shaw, Associate Dean of the College (Faculty) at Brown, who has developed similar services.

"I was just very impressed that there were 27 interesting and enthusiastic faculty there," Horton said. "I had a great time, and I was just proud that they cared enough to do this."

-Amanda Weatherman

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