Sign showing access to wheelchair ramp

Disability Services

Bellarmine to embrace Universal Design principles to better serve students with disabilities


By Alexia Gardon
This week marks the 31st anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Both the ADA and its companion law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, have led to positive changes in higher education. But even after 31 years, there is still progress to be made, and Bellarmine is working to do just that.
The anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is an opportunity for our campus community to reflect on how we engage and serve students with disabilities. 

Bellarmine is committed to providing the most inclusive educational opportunities possible for students with disabilities. As that population grows, this commitment is more important than ever. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of students registered with Disability Services rose by almost 31 percent. In response to this growth, Bellarmine underwent a voluntary campus accessibility audit in the spring of 2021 to identify areas in which we could improve the ways we serve students with disabilities. The audit was conducted by a group of consultants from Indianapolis who made a three-day site visit, during which they met with students, staff, faculty and administrators. 

In their report, the consultants observed that Bellarmine is a warm and welcoming community for students with disabilities. They were encouraged by the university’s desire to promote diversity and specifically noted the strong advocacy of Dr. D.J. Mitchell, Bellarmine’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, to include disability in Bellarmine’s diversity initiatives. They were impressed by the accommodation process and the programs already in place to support students with disabilities, such as Access BU and Students Beyond Barriers.
Access BU is an early transition program hosted by Disability Services that allows incoming students with disabilities to get an advance look at the college experience and be placed with a peer mentor. Students Beyond Barriers is an organization open to all students that focuses on creating advocates and allies for students with disabilities. Bellarmine is at the precipice of becoming a leader in providing accessibility for students with disabilities, said the consultants, who outlined several recommendations for how the university can achieve this goal as the population of students with disabilities continues to grow.
An overarching theme of the audit report was the need to incorporate Universal Design principles across campus. Auditors commended Bellarmine’s efforts to make the university accessible to students, faculty and staff but said that further incorporation of Universal Design principles and practices would strongly support Bellarmine’s desire to embrace disability as a valued aspect of diversity.
The premise of Universal Design is simple: Rather than retrofitting buildings, environments or consumer products with accessibility features after they have been created, anticipate diversity in users’ needs and incorporate accessibility features from the outset, Sally Scott, Stan Shaw and Joan McGuire wrote in "Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities" in the ERIC (Educational Resources Information CenterDigest.  Examples of Universal Design include sidewalk curb cuts, automatic doors and closed captioning on television screens in public places. While these features are particularly helpful to people with disabilities, they benefit other individuals as well. 
In the late 1990s, researchers built on the elements of Universal Design originally found in the fields of architecture, interior, landscape and product design and applied them to the college classroom. The result, according to Scott, Shaw and McGuire in "Universal Design for Instruction: The Paradigm, Its Principles, and Products for Enhancing Instructional Access" in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, was Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), an approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional strategies that are responsive to the diverse needs of learners. UDI encompasses nine principles that make accessibility an integral focus of instructional planning. By incorporating these principles into coursework, we can increase accessibility not only for students with disabilities, but for all Bellarmine students. 
Nine Principles of UDI
  • Equitable use: accessible and usable by everyone
  • Flexibility in use: accommodated to individual needs with choices provided
  • Simple and intuitive: clear and understood regardless of student’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level
  • Perceptible information: accessible regardless of students’ sensory abilities
  • Tolerance for error: anticipates learning pace and prerequisite skills
  • Low physical effort: minimizes nonessential physical effort (unless physical effort is integral to the essential requirements of a course)
  • Size and space for approach and use: considers physical and sensory access to environment, equipment and tasks
  • A community of learners: promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty
  • Instructional climate: welcoming and inclusive
Dr. Mitchell has expressed the importance of making Universal Design the standard at Bellarmine. The first step to achieving this goal is to educate the campus community, specifically faculty, on the importance of Universal Design. Currently there is no formalized training process for faculty regarding best practices in teaching students with disabilities. Throughout the review process, students, staff, and faculty recognized that more training for faculty is needed. In response, the Faculty Development Office and Disability Services are collaborating on a series of workshops for faculty that will address a variety of disability issues, including incorporating Universal Design into course development and recognizing disability as part of diversity. The workshops are scheduled to begin this fall.
The anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is an opportunity for our campus community to reflect on how we engage and serve students with disabilities. If we are to recognize disability as a part of diversity, and embrace the educational value of diversity on campus, we must address the implications of student diversity in the design and delivery of instruction. By incorporating Universal Design principles into our classrooms, and enhancing faculty training and development on disability issues, we can honor the legacy of the ADA and exemplify Bellarmine’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 
Alexia Gardon is Disability Services Coordinator in Bellarmine’s Office of Disability Services.

Tags: Disability Services , Student Life , Student Success

About Bellarmine University

Bellarmine University is a vibrant community of educational excellence and ethical awareness that consistently ranks among the nation’s best colleges and universities. Our students pursue an education based in the liberal arts – and in the distinguished, inclusive Catholic tradition of educational excellence, the oldest and most rewarding in the western world. It is a lifelong education, worthy of the university’s namesake, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and of his invitation to each of us to learn and live In Veritatis Amore – in the love of all that is beautiful, true and good in life.