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Service Improvement

The Multiple Joys of Universal Design

6 February 2024
Cartoon of different types of people benefitting from a drop down kerb. The kerb is not only helping someone in a wheelchair, it helps a family with a pushchair, cyclists, people with wheelie suitcases and a delivery person with a trolley.

I was Programme Director for the Executive MBA in Cardiff Business School for 5 years. It was a big responsibility. I had to put a lot of time into promoting the programme to the outside world – open days, individual meetings with potential candidates, shout outs at Breakfast Briefings etc. There was also actually managing the programme day to day, co-ordinating modules with module leaders, responding to group student feedback as well as the different individual needs of the Executive MBA student cohort.  Given the part-time nature of the course, and the fact that students missed modules, took ‘Interruptions of Study’, delayed starting their dissertations etc. it all meant that there was never just one year group to deal with, there were multiple years of students that required attention at any one time.

I think the most pressing of all the challenges however was making sure that we had secured, in sufficient numbers, an experienced, varied, dynamic cohort to start the programme each year.  Even though it’s worth every penny, the programme does cost a lot of money and taking on a Masters, even when it’s part-time, when you are working and have a family, well it’s a massive undertaking so I completely appreciated why it took a lot of thought before someone committed to studying it.  So yes, some students took a lot of time to convince and reach the decision that they wanted to definitely apply, but there were also some delightful students who just seemed to apply of their own accord, without any prior intervention from me! It was a joy when I’d happily see a fresh new name that I hadn’t encountered before in the Student Admissions system smiling up at me as I logged in to check my application numbers. I loved those guys.

In 2021, just before the programme was about to start in September, I received an email from the University’s Disability Service to say that a student that was joining in September, one of those delightfully ‘straightforward’ ones that applied under their own volition, and was eligible, was also very blind.

I’m afraid and ashamed to admit that my first reaction was ‘oh God.. MORE WORK’.

As I’ve explained, the Executive MBA was a lot already and I did this job alongside my Executive Education and External Engagement role as well.   So yes, it’s fair to say that I was time poor, over stretched, over worked…. not exactly looking for exciting new MBA challenges to sink my teeth into. There was no doubt in my mind that we would rise up to meet the challenge, but I think it’s also important to admit the initial feelings that entered my head when I first found out that one of my students couldn’t see.

I met with the Disability Service, who were great, and they shared with me what we knew about the student and what sort of things we’d have to think about to accommodate his study.  The principle of ‘reasonable adjustment’ is very important – we have a legal responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities have as equal access to learning as an able bodied learner.  We needed to work out what we had to provide in order to make our course ‘equally’ accessible.

Firstly, we would need to make sure that all images in all of the notes and slides were described via Alternative Text (‘right click’ on a picture and select ‘View Alt Text’ – Word can even use AI to automatically suggest what’s happening in a picture). This feature is essential for text reading software. You can also mark an image as ‘purely decorative’ so that the reader skips over it.  Once you are alert to ‘looking’ for images, it’s crazy how much we use visuals in teaching, particularly block teaching I feel.  It’s essential to break up the days of learning in different ways – you can’t have slide after slide of words alone when disseminating critical information, so yes, you use diagrams and models and charts and pictures, all of which were inaccessible to our student.

In addition, the student needed to be able to work through all of the module’s materials before the actual teaching to familiarise himself with them before the live session, so we had to make sure that everyone provided their teaching materials at least one week in advance.

My soul groaned. As a lecturer myself I knew about the last minute tweaks I’d like to make before teaching, let alone how up against it I usually was – making sure all materials were available ONE WEEK before the lecture started, working with all the lecturers to achieve this, was going to take considerable effort.

He’d need an additional support person alongside him to take notes, he’d need to be guided around the building, yes, this wasn’t just any student that we were dealing with here.

The first day of induction arrived.  Our student was being met by various parties to help to acquaint himself with his environment. I was always nervous for a new intake of Exec. MBA students in case nobody turned up, but this time was even more scary. Were we going to fail spectacularly at looking after the additional requirements of our visually impaired lawyer? Yes, you read that correctly, LAWYER.

Meeting our student for the first time instantly put me at ease.  He was open, warm and funny, fiercely intelligent, and the whole cohort and Executive Education team, took to him immediately.  Most importantly, his presence on the programme provided me with an amazing revelation.

Every student had a better learning experience because of his participation. 

Whereas before, we might have been a tad lackadaisical about the uploading of notes and materials, now everyone could access them prior to the sessions and familiarise themselves with the learning. Whereas before, lecturers could be a tad laissez-faire about ensuring that their lectures were recorded and uploaded, now his additional needs required us to do it, benefitting everyone.

I only taught a small part of the programme, some of the Lean Thinking elective module, but being encouraged to think about the relevance of the pictures on slides, to take extra care in describing what is happening in graphs, charts, made me more careful and considered in my teaching definitely.  We didn’t get everything right, there were lots of problems along the way, but together, we worked through what we needed to do to give him the best access to his studies that we could. His journey was always going to be harder than everyone else’s, no matter what we did or didn’t do, because he can’t see.  He was so often reliant on other people, he was always going to need more time, more effort, more care. I’m reminded of this drawing which so beautifully, visually, explains how we have to do more to provide equity of access.

Three pictures side by side. The first picture shows three people watching a football match standing on crates. The first two, taller people, can see over the fence. The third, shorter person, is not tall enough, even standing on the box, to see over the fence and watch the game. This picture is entitled 'Equality' - they all have an equal size box to stand on, but one still cannot participate. The second picture, named 'Equity' has the same three people, but this time the first tall person, does not need to stand on a box to see. The second person stands on one box and can see, the third, short person stands on two boxes, and now can see. The third picture shows the same three people of varying heights however the fence obstructing the view of the match has been removed. This picture is named 'Justice' as now everyone can see regardless of their height and without the need for additional adaptions.
Equality, Equity, Justice

Picture 3 in this diagram describes ‘overcoming’ the systemic barrier that the physical difference demands.  The innovation of removing the wooden fence liberates access for all.   Another term for this is ‘Universal Design’ and I’m a massive fan.

“Universal design is design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Ron Mace –  – it appeals to my Service Design sensibilities massively.

As this How Design for Accessibility Drives Innovation for All  article illustrates, there are so many innovations that benefit society at large, which were specifically created to help disabled people overcome challenges. Universal Design provides the ultimate ‘elegant simplicity’.

“Accessibility and usability share key goals — both are concerned with creating an intuitive user experience. By necessity a product that is usable for someone who does not have the benefit of sight, hearing, or mobility must be more intuitive than most”.

Everyone benefits.

So as the eloquent drawing introducing this blog illustrates, the drop down kerb, whilst essential for a wheelchair user, also benefits the family with a pushchair, the tourist with a wheelie suitcase, the courier with a trolley, the cyclist.  And whilst a visually impaired person can’t see this drawing, the act of describing what’s happening in the picture so they can appreciate it as well, helps everyone to understand what is happening, and in turn, gives me a better and deeper understanding too.