The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted into law in the United States more than 20 years ago, yet many U.S. colleges and universities still struggle to meet accessibility standards for buildings and classrooms so that students with disabilities can attend class (“Americans with disabilities act of 1990,” p. 14). The proportion of disabled students attending colleges and universities remained unchanged in recent years. Eleven percent of undergraduate students reported having a disability in 2011-12 under categories for learning disabilities, visual handicap, hard of hearing, deafness, speech disability, orthopedic handicap, or a health impairment (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).

Many institutions have centers for disability services to address accommodation needs of individuals on a case-by-case basis (, 2016). It is not a requirement by law that all buildings be accessible, and it is common practice in higher education to move classes to an accessible location to accommodate a person who has declared a disability (Disability Resource Center, 2016). Even in cases where new construction or renovation requires compliance with Title III of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the portion of the law that outlines minimum standards for accessibility in public and commercial facilities, institutional culture or poor planning can result in designs that are legally acceptable but functionally poor for the individuals in greatest need.

This difficult situation led me to wonder about possible ways to encourage a different way of thinking about accessible classroom design. Rather than focusing solely on students who are disabled, instead I wondered, “How can we rethink classroom design so it benefits all students?” Reframing the issue removed barriers and stigma associated with accommodating a small group of individuals, instead focused on improving access to everyone. This context is rooted in “Universal Design” principles, a concept developed by architect and educator Dr. Ronald L. Mace, which focused on “designing products and the built environment to serve the needs of people regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (Design for Human Diversity, n.d.-b).

Research Questions

For my dissertation research, I am interested in reviewing common classroom designs in higher education and how they impact students (positively and negatively) with physical disabilities (e.g., visual, hearing, and mobility impairments). I then wanted to look at what affordances (if any) Universal Design strategies for physical spaces might create when designing a classroom. I will focus my research on the following questions:

  1. What are common classroom design issues reported/experienced by students with specific physical disabilities (e.g., visual, auditory, mobility impairments)?
  2. How can Universal Design concepts be applied to improve those classroom design issues?

Domain of Knowledge

For this research, I plan to conduct a case study at a participating university in the southeastern United States. Defined by Sharan Merriam (1998), a case study is “an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon such as a program, an institution, a person, a process, or a social unit,” (Merriam, 1998, p. xiii). I am selecting this methodology because it provides an opportunity for in-depth exploration of a broader problem within a specific context and environment.

This study will use critical education theory, or critical pedagogy, as the theoretical perspective. At its core, critical pedagogy “examines schools both in their historical context and as part of the existing social and political fabric that characterizes the class-driven dominant society” (McLaren, 2002, p. 185). The driving objectives of this theoretical perspective are to empower those who are marginalized by the current education system and to create opportunities to change or remove the factors causing oppression (McLaren, 2002).

The conceptual framework for this study is grounded in Universal Design. Universal Design, as defined by The R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute, is “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for specialized design” (Design for Human Diversity, n.d.-c). A collaborative group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental designers at what was then North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design established seven guiding principles around this concept (Burgstahler & University of Washington, 2009; Design for Human Diversity, n.d.-c). These principles included:

  1. Equitable use – emphasized the importance design that appeals to and is available for all users, not most, in order to avoid segregation.
  2. Flexibility of use – encouraged flexibility of choice and adaptability of a design’s use.
  3. Simple and intuitive use – aimed to reduce complexity and build on intuitive and consistent design techniques.
  4. Perceptible information – presented options for displaying or communicating information in ways that are legible, perceptible (such as pictorial, verbal, or tactile), or compatible with techniques or devices.
  5. Tolerance for error – suggested building in fail-safe features to encourage appropriate or intended use and avoid adverse actions through design or warning messages.
  6. Low physical effort – encouraged efficient and comfortable design that minimizes repetitive, sustained, or demanding force for operation.
  7. Size and space for approach and use – reminded designers to build in appropriate space to see, access, and use a design independently with or without assistive or personal devices.

Research Agenda

Informal Pilot Study

As part of EDIT 9990E, Critical Perspectives in LDT, I conducted an informal pilot study in which I worked with a disabilities services office at a large university in the southeast to collect generalized data including demographics of students served and commonly reported classroom design issues. I also conducted a walk-along session in which a subject matter expert (SME) from the disability services office reviewed four common classroom designs: (1) a lecture hall with fixed chairs, (2) a computer lab with fixed tables and movable chairs, (3) a classroom with movable desks and chairs, and (4) a classroom with moveable tables and chairs). During the session, the SME highlighted examples as they related to commonly reported barriers and made suggestions for possible improvements rooted in the concept of Universal Design.

Future Research

I would like to submit an IRB proposal for a pilot study in Fall 2016 and my proposal for dissertation research in Spring/Summer 2017. I would like to collect demographics data and conduct interviews (individual or small group) with several groups including students served by disability services offices, disability services staff, and facilities staff. I would like to be able to describe the barriers encountered by students, and I would like to develop strategies for overcoming them using a Universal Design perspective. A suggestion from the informal pilot study was to develop a Universal Design checklist to assist departments and/or facilities staff when designing or renovating classrooms.

Research Goals

Framed using critical pedagogy as the theoretical lens, this study is designed to document the experiences of students with disabilities or as reported to the support staff who are responsible for ensuring access to classrooms and equitable teaching and learning experiences therein. I am interested in understanding the demographics of this population at the university, the types of classroom design barriers encountered, and the current methods for providing accommodations. I would then like to explore new opportunities for overcoming these barriers long-term by reviewing classroom design from a Universal Design perspective in collaboration with the disability services staff. It is my hope that this in-depth review of barriers and opportunities for improvement encourages higher education institutions to design more inclusive classrooms.


Americans with disabilities act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990). (2016). Overview of college resources for students with disabilites. Retrieved from

Burgstahler, S., & University of Washington, Do-It. (2009). Universal design in postsecondary education: Process, principles, and applications. Retrieved from

Design for Human Diversity. (n.d.-b). Ronald l. Mace, faia 1941-1998. The R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute. Retrieved from

Design for Human Diversity. (n.d.-c). What is universal design? The R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute. Retrieved from

Disability Resource Center. (2016). Program access for inaccessible buildings. Disability Resource Center, The University of Georgia. Retrieved from

McLaren, P. (2002). Life in schools. An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education (4th ed.).

U.S. Department of Education, & National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of education statistics, 2014. (NCES 2016-006). Retrieved from