The World—Finally—Is Getting More Accessible through Universal Design

by Ben Johnston

Not long ago, home automation—much like any emerging technology—was inaccessibly expensive. It was reserved for either people with significant physical disabilities (through a medical model), or early adopters with mounds of disposable income. But that’s changed. All around us the world is becoming more accessible.

google assistant device on shelf

Now a $50 lightbulb can be controlled by a smartphone app, and geofencing turns the light on when we arrive and turns it off when we leave. A thermostat helps to save energy through smarter interactions with the weather forecast. And if someone is at the front door, we can see who it is and communicate with them from a smartphone without opening the door. It’s useful to see what’s happening at home even when we’re away. (Yes! I got the package I was expecting.) For someone with limited mobility, it’s a game-changer.

Now more than any time in our history, universal design—and universal design for learning—is pushing accessibility to greater heights than we’ve ever known. Voices that once merely whispered now contribute unique perspectives, and the world benefits as a result. A society that emphasizes accessibility brings everyone up, and the proof is all around us.

Microsoft’s All-In, “We All Win” Moment

The 2019 Super Bowl carried a monumental price tag of $5 million per 30-second slot. Microsoft made a powerful $10 million statement with its 60-second spot:

“When everybody plays, we all win.”

No matter how many times it’s viewed, it remains moving and lovely. The product plug, ostensibly, is Microsoft’s adaptive controller, but what the company really did was spotlight a way in which they level the playing field.

 

In the 45-second mark of the video, Owen’s father pulls back tears as he says, “He’s not different when he plays.” That’s the dream of universal design—to give people the tools they need to participate equally and to forget about shortcomings, disadvantages, or disabilities.

Apple’s Accessibility Endorsement

There seems to be a sort of upstream migration of product features that begin in the accessibility field and become adopted on a larger scale.

 

Word prediction is one. Paul Schwejda and Judy McDonald developed groundbreaking word prediction back in the early 80s—for accessibility. Who would have known that several decades later, nearly every person with a phone would have a version of word prediction for the same reason Paul and Judy originally created it. Not because of a physical disability, but rather a physical interface between small touchscreen keyboards and our largest digit—our thumbs.

Google’s Nostalgia Trip

Finally, Google called up Macaulay Culkin to pay homage to an all-time classic Christmas story—Home Alone. (An aside: whoever conceived this ad deserves big props.) Only this time, an aged Kevin McAllister is equipped with a home automation system rivaling that of the Jetsons. As you may recall, Google launched itself into the world of home automation with its purchase of Nest.

From Physical Access to Learning Access

Physical accessibility is now in focus because it feels tangible. It’s clear that without accessibility options, Sady Paulson’s life would look different than it does. She certainly wouldn’t be video editing. She wouldn’t have as much opportunity to tap into her true creative potential.

Although it’s less visible, we now see a similar movement with more “hidden” disabilities like dyslexia. It may be harder to communicate in a Super Bowl ad, but the results are the same. There’s major momentum to use tools to help reading comprehension and writing. After all, word prediction is convenient to write with thumbs. Who’s to say we can’t open it up to people who need it to function?

 

Whether a physical disability or a learning disability is preventing someone from reaching creative and intellectual fulfillment, shouldn’t we lift barriers so they can tap into their potential?

 

Whether a physical disability or a learning disability is preventing someone from reaching creative and intellectual fulfillment, shouldn’t we lift barriers so they can tap into their potential?

Our Universal Future

What happens when we make learning more accessible to everyone? Accessibility for learning is the great equalizer because learning allows us to do the things we love. Learning lets us develop skills to contribute to society.

 

We can aid Universal Design for Learning by considering how we build our school and work environments, and by ensuring each person is given the conditions to participate fully.

 

Getting to the core, how is it that a benefit for one can benefit all? Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, universal design lifts us all.

Human Learning Link

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