Where Do We Go From Here? Universal Design as a Model for Multicultural Education

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Where Do We Go from Here?

Universal Design as a Model for Multicultural Education

Heidi L. Barajas and Jeanne L. Higbee

University of Minnesota


This chapter encourages educators to think more broadly about Universal Design and Universal Instructional Design as models for inclusion for all students in postsecondary settings.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Universal Design as a Model for Multicultural Education

When theorizing, conducting research, creating policy, and shaping practice, we often ask questions like, "What is the next logical step?" "How can we expand into new areas of thought?" "Where do we go from here?" To those of us involved in the development of this book and in projects like Curriculum Transformation and Disability (CTAD), the answer has seemed obvious. To date Universal Design as a model for inclusion in postsecondary education has been applied only to disability. While Universal Design is still a relatively new concept, it is time to expand its implementation in keeping with its definition. If we are to succeed in designing educational spaces in a manner that takes into consideration the needs of all learners, then it is imperative to engage in a paradigm shift that places the inclusion of all students at the core of educational planning. Rather than an extension of a model for accommodation, Universal Design should be perceived as a means for actively engaging all students in the learning process, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, ethnic origin, language, social class, sexual orientation, or disability.

Where Have We Been?

The terminology of inclusion has changed over the last five decades, not because of political correctness, but because of an exploration and absolutely necessary evolution of how we have perceived "difference." In the 1950s and 1960s we "tolerated" (e.g., Chickering, 1969) individual differences. The United States was perceived as a "melting pot" (Park, 1950), a term that assumes the assimilation of diverse cultures. Within this context, "universal" might imply "one size fits all." Over the following decades we moved from tolerance to "acceptance," but why should there be a need to "accept" who--or more pertinently to this model, what--someone is? Our intentions may have been good; the shift from tolerance to acceptance was an honest attempt to move in the right direction, but this focus still placed difference in a negative light.

Indeed, in the process of writing about and conceptualizing a truly universal approach to instructional design, we realized even the word “difference” is currently in transformation in terms of what we mean when we talk about difference and how our practice is affected by that discussion. We can predict the trajectory of what is meant by the word “difference” by looking at changes in other signifiers that originated as a resistance to negative stereotypes. The word “special,” for example, used to be a positive signifier indicating educators needing to meet a particular kind of educational support (e.g., special education). Over time, the meaning and the practice attached to “special” has been used to segregate students. Sooner or later, if not presently, the word “difference” is shifting to a meaning that implies an outsider status that is negative. Originally, the use of difference was a positive indicator of valuing people’s rights to their own individuality and positive self-definitions that replaced being stereotyped as the deficit “other.” In other words, there is value in difference as opposed to indifference or disdain for difference.

The new millennium is a time of acknowledging, rather than tolerating or accepting, individual and cultural differences. Within this context, Universal Design in postsecondary education can take on new meaning to create an expanded vision of inclusion, one that places the education of all individuals at the heart of how we as educators think, how we practice, how we talk, and how we approach research.

Implementing Universal Design as a Multicultural Phenomenon

A discussion of implementation must begin with a clear understanding of what historical ghosts we continue to deal with in education. One ghost we refer to is the assumption that our classroom policies and practices are essentially neutral, and in place for the fair and equal treatment of all students. We may recognize that educational institutions inherently privilege students who own particular social characteristics and ideology, and may even acknowledge this creates some “climate” issues for what we term “diverse” groups of students. However, what we may not identify is that we continue to see the core curriculum, and classroom policies and practices, as neutral in terms of the gender, age, ability, race, home language, religion, and social class of the student. Our continued focus on the universal assumptions of assimilation is inevitable if we do not consider the more hidden assumption of neutrality. Even with steadfast and earnest attempts to increase the size of the schoolhouse door, to include or even infuse multiple voices in our curricula and practices, it is as if we do so with an invisible weight around our neck that does not quite allow us to take a much needed step forward. In her research that examines how teaching practices are affected by teacher training in multiculturalism, Sleeter (1996) indicates that although

teachers were enthusiastic about the program because they were acquiring much new information…they were adding that information into conceptions they already had about the workings of the social system, rather than reconstructing those conceptions. (p. 76)

Sleeter’s point is that we need to be reflective about how we make changes in what we think and do. However, part of that reflective process is being critical about what we think and do. Otherwise, we end up believing we have created a universal design because we have added some information to our classroom strategies, but few of us have substantially restructured our thinking, practices, and policies.

We suggest that a result of restructuring our thinking through a paradigm shift that places UID into the instructional methodologies in the higher education classroom is that many kinds of access issues may be addressed, including multicultural concerns (i.e., multiple racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and class concerns). In addition, there is a relationship between general access, multicultural access, and the application of UID that strengthens the general usefulness as well as the appeal of a “universal” model. However, thinking through these relationships critically is a necessary step to synthesize multiple access needs into UID.

There is no better time to work through shifting our thinking, curricula, practices, and policies in educational settings than at the development stages of UID in higher education. Although formal research provides important empirical examples of students’ educational process, we as educators sometimes forget to connect what we know to what we do in the classroom. Adding an alternative learning component is a step, but may remain a part of a mechanical, normative education because one of the assumptions of “neutral” institutions is that all students will participate in the new component in much the same way. In order to find a truly universal model, we need to change our definition of universal, beginning with the idea that centering our classroom activities and requirements around what we used to consider “special needs” students in reality creates a classroom that simply promotes student-centered learning for all students.

How do we begin to make the kind of shift we have described? We know how to do so in words. Banks (2000) calls for educators to

reform the cultures of the nation’s schools, as well as the curriculum, to institutionalize and legitimize the knowledge systems, perspectives, ideologies, and behaviors of diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, social class, and language groups…that more liberatory and multicultural paradigms and canons be constructed and institutionalized. (p. 38)

The first step is agreement that this is the direction our shift needs to take, and it is a challenging one. Banks, like many of us who attempt to work from a “liberatory and multicultural paradigm,” assumes educators have embraced the value of this kind of thinking. Moore (2002) suggests that curricular transformation in the sciences often begins “when students, faculty, and administrators recognize that women, ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and others have been excluded from science and wonder how this has affected science” (p.86). In addition, we now have some 25 years in which multiculturalism has been actively pursued through textbook revision and curricular changes to inform us. Many educators involved in attempting to address access and climate issues through the multicultural process are frustrated because the work done to make the curricula multicultural, as well as what appear to be well-integrated textbooks, continue to be criticized (Sleeter, 1996).

Both Sleeter (1996) and Banks (1996) attribute the frustration of those attempting to address multicultural issues in curricula and classroom practices, and the criticism aimed at these changes, to the propensity of educators to produce multicultural changes that adhere to White, conservative renditions of what America is and who gets to define what “American” means. Although we would agree that this continues to be at the core of our inability to transform our thinking, policy, and practice, we also acknowledge that what Sleeter and Banks identify occurring in American education is also about normative and conservative thinking affecting curricula and classroom practices globally. What remains constant in either a global or American frame is the necessity to consider that neutralized or even invisible frameworks are driving what we think and do.

Finally, as we move forward in our attempts to transform educational practices, we should do so learning from transformative processes that have succeeded in bringing us to where we are today. Recollecting those processes reminds us that a paradigm shift is not a snapshot of education we take, consider, and pronounce done. Paradigm shifts are an ongoing process accomplished through small steps. Although we are critical of attempts to institutionalize and legitimize the knowledge systems, perspectives, ideologies, and behaviors of diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, social class, and language groups, the attempts have been good ones. And, being critical is what moves us forward. In addition, considering the new scholarship emanating from this country and the rest of the world, particularly that by the increasing numbers of scholars who have traditionally been marginalized, transformative measures today should look different. Whatever we do to consider and implement a more universal instructional design, like other transformations before us, will look good but will not be what we ultimately want it to be, or have the affect we may have thought it would. But by taking small steps to continue the transformation of educational programs, services, curricula, pedagogy, and policy, we will get closer to making our vision a reality.


Banks, J.A. (2000) The social construction of difference and the quest for educational equality. In R. S. Brandt Education in a new era, (pp. 21-45). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Banks, J.A. (1996). The Canon debate, knowledge construction, and multicultural education. In J.A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action (pp. 3-29). New York: Teachers College Press.

Chickering, A.W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, R. (2002). The lessons of history: Transforming science to include developmental education. In D.B. Lundell & J.L. Higbee (Eds.) Histories of developmental education (pp. 83-94). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research in Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Park, R. (1950). Race and culture. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Sleeter, C.E. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

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