Universal design for learning for an accessible classroom

U of M professor advocates for equitable and inclusive classroom design

Classroom design issues are important from an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) perspective. If we want a just campus at the University of Manitoba where everyone is welcomed and included, we need to create classrooms for all our faculty, staff and students. As an educator, I am influenced by the universal design for learning (UDL).

UDL is interested in removing elements of instruction design, curriculum design and course delivery that create unnecessary barriers for students with learning and physical disabilities.

Many of the accommodations that students need can be given to all students. Rather than waiting for students to go through the sometimes complex process of gaining accommodations, an instructional UDL perspective will build flexibility and reasonable accommodations for everyone.

For instance, allowing flexibility on assignment deadlines helps students with ADHD and anxiety issues, and helps any student who is struggling with balancing work, life and their academic careers.

However, UDL can only be as strong as the physical limitations of the teaching environment. Many will consider the classroom an inherently neutral space — but it isn’t. The physical classroom environment privileges some bodies who seem to fit the environment while creating burdens for others.

The sonic environment of a classroom may be noisy and distracting. Some of these distractions are momentary, like hallway noise, and some are omnipresent, like a loud ventilation fan that is always on.

The sounds may not impact some students who can easily ignore non-essential noises in the learning environment. For some students with hearing issues or who are neuroatypical, however, excessive distracting noises can create real processing issues that make focusing difficult.

Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching in the Fletcher Argue building. I enjoyed working with my students and loved having complex discussions about literature and culture. I did not, however, love the classroom itself. There were frequent times when the noise in the hallway made teaching impossible.

While some of this is a student etiquette concern, some is a question of installing sound dampeners.

This may seem like a small concern, but like many of my students, I am neurodivergent and often struggle with attention and anxiety issues in a university setting. These seemingly small distractions had an outsized impact on my ability to deliver my lectures and, in turn, on my students’ ability to pay attention while we were speaking to each other.

This meant that I had trouble delivering my lectures because I was anxious about the extra noise in the learning environment. Was I speaking loud enough? Was I rushing to get the lecture over with so that I could get away from the distracting noises? Did I need to go into the hallway and ask the people speaking to be quiet? If I did, what kinds of conflicts might arise, and how would those conflicts impact the classroom learning environment?

Each question was cognitively demanding for me as an educator with processing issues. I have learned how to re-centre, process, and address the issues as an educator and host of the room.

Part of my job is welcoming students to my discipline in first-year classes, which is hard to do when they are distracted. They wondered if I would say anything to the people talking in the hallway. The mental effort put into dealing with these questions was time when they were not thinking about Renaissance poetry. If we just had the class in another room, these students would have had more time and cognitive bandwidth to engage in active learning.

We can also take desks as an example. If a student fits the desks in a classroom, that privilege is invisible to them. They don’t have to think about it.

That means they can focus on learning. In contrast, if a student does not fit in the desks, they are painfully aware that their body is uncomfortable. That is time spent dealing with their discomfort and not time paying full attention, thinking about what the professor is saying, nor time processing big ideas in a collegial environment.

Recently, in that same Fletcher Argue classroom, I had the enormous pleasure of watching one of my teaching assistants give an engaging lecture. As an educator, I was proud to watch a student I had mentored give a brilliant lecture, and I was excited for my students to participate in a discussion with an emerging scholar.

As a person with a body, however, I was filled with shame during the lecture that I needed to hide from my students. I am a prairie-sized academic, and I would say that I am far wider and taller than the average person.

As a fatademic, I get through most spaces in life without any issues. But to listen to this lecture, I needed to sit down, with the students, and watch the lecture. The classroom had those small, black chairs with a writing surface on the right side.

To my great embarrassment, I could not fit in the chairs with the desk down. Suddenly, I understood why so many of my larger students were not taking notes in my class. I work with student athletes who are often too tall for these desks. I work with students who have normal, prairie-sized bodies, who are sometimes too wide or too long to sit comfortably in these desks.

During the winter, I see students struggle to fit in these desks with all their winter clothing. These desks are not built for the bodies of our students, and we should have desks in the classroom that are accessible to everyone.

Now, I am sure that some readers will be sympathetic to the acoustic concern I have raised. But, perhaps some will be less sympathetic to my concerns about making spaces useful for students with prairie-sized bodies. We moralize so much about weight in our culture.

Statistics Canada reported in 2022 that 30 per cent of all Canadians aged 18 and older, and 34 per cent of Manitobans, were obese. We also know that weight tracks with race and class, so many students who are going to face barriers in the classroom because of their weight are already dealing with racial and class barriers.

Right now, we can address the desk issue on a case by case basis with classroom services. In practice, this means a student needs to ask for accommodation. This is fine when students have legal accommodations, say for a wheelchair accessible or standing desk.

But being overweight or tall is not automatically grounds for accommodation and asking because you are fat can be embarrassing. We must ask how much cognitive bandwidth is taken up by students who don’t fit their desks who are otherwise thinking about how to sit comfortably in the classroom? A bigger student may not be taking notes in the classroom because doing so would be physically uncomfortable.

We can fix these sonic and size issues with relative ease. These changes will not hurt the students who fit the desks and are not distracted by excessive noise in any meaningful way. Yes, this will be expensive. Yes, this will be time consuming. Creating a learning environment that fits everyone is about making difficult choices. We already know how to do this work because we have lots of class- rooms on campus with appropriate sound dampening and desks that fit prairie-sized students.

All classrooms should be designed intentionally to remove unnecessary barriers to permit an engaging and accessible classroom environment for everyone. This is the only way we can ensure we have classrooms that are inviting for all students, staff and faculty.