By: Margaret Janse Van Rensburg, School of Social Work


The Canadian Human Rights Act (R.S.C. 1985) legislates that all people should have equitable opportunities regardless of ability. It institutes that plans should be made to adapt services, facilities, premises, equipment or operations to meet the needs of persons arising from a disability,” and that failure to do so is an act of discrimination. Further, disability extends to mean mental and physical disabilities, including dependence on alcohol or drugs (R.S.C. 1985).  Over 30 years later, Carleton University continues to fall short of creating accessible spaces. In order to diminish insufficient education and training practices, policies at Carleton must implement a commitment to Universal Designs for Learning (UDL) in all classroom, training, and testing environments.

The critical theory of disability developed in reaction to past perspectives of disability as an individual, rather than a social problem. A critical model reconceptualizes disability into an issue of society, where disability is formed through social oppression and discrimination (Hanes, 2016). Critical Disability Studies challenges assumptions and presumptions to promote the allowance of disabled people to participate more completely contemporary society (Devlin & Pothier, 2006). Hanley (2018) explains that a disability cannot be remedied through medical intervention. Disability, impairment, or any other factors that impact a persons’ learning are the direct result of the environment which does not accept and accommodate the person. Intersectional theory was founded by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) in a critique of feminism. Crenshaw identified that the supports and legislation for gender equality were framed in a way which supports White feminists, and are insufficient to meet the needs of women of colour (Crenshaw, 1991).  In using these theories to look at ability to learn, it makes sense to advocate for UDL.

In looking at disability as constructed by society, classrooms and trainings that are inaccessible to the needs of all learners disable people from learning to their fullest potential. Further, by understanding intersectionality, we can understand that people are not only impacted by ability. Rather, ability to learn may be impacted by a persons’ history, their past experiences with learning, their current and past socioeconomic status, and other forms of oppression which may take place within and outside of the classroom. This helps us to understand that whether or not a person has a disability, they will benefit from a UDL.

As a Teaching Assistant at Carleton University, I had the opportunity to see how different students approached their work, approached testing styles and written assignments. It was apparent in the majority of the courses that I attended, that didactic styles of lecturing were employed. This puzzled me, as didactic methods are not evidence-based. Rather, they are proven as ineffective in comparison to other more “hands-on” approaches (Shreeve, 2008, Smith, 2018). Reid (2004, in Smith, 2008) argues that the reason that didactic methods are so heavily relied-upon is because “it appears to be the easiest and most time conservative method.” (p. 4)

Not only does didactic teaching allow for instructors to conserve their own time in-class, but they do not have to think of active ways to engage students and trainees. Further, they do not have to think of modifications that may need to be made, if an active learning technique does not work (Smith, 2018).

UDL was inspired by the concept of Universal Design in the field of architecture. UDL requires instructors of classes and trainings to be creative in their pedagogical methods (Bernacchio & Mullen, 2007). In embracing a UDL, an instructor must be cognisant of the needs and abilities of their students, and how their activities may not be accessible to all. They must be able to plan for how to modify their teaching styles in order to ensure that all students can have not only an equal opportunity to learn, but equitable outcomes in attending the class or training.

Dee, Lee-Post,  & Hapke (2016) propose that the following instructional tools can be added to traditional didactic techniques to impose a UDL.

  1. Use of PowerPoints: each with fill-in-the-blank exercises and sample exam questions
  2. Providing Lecture Note
  3. Making interactive using clickers
  4. The use of MindTap: an app for the courses textbook with other instructional tools, including flashcards, dictionaries, and notebook, and the students homework assignments

In conducting surveys, they found that the classroom was more accessible for a more diverse set of students, empowering the students to take responsibility for their own learning. This means that depending on individual choice, each student chooses what instructional tools they use to assist their learning, rather than attempting to use them all (Dee, Lee-Post, & Hapke, 2016). Kleran & Anderson (2018) argue that in providing instructional tools of UDL increases student participation and promote student self-determination in classroom settings, independent of the diversity of the learners.

How can UDL be applied at Carleton? We are making progress: in my current Teaching Assistant Position, students have the option to buy access to online lectures. This is in line with Rae & Samuels (2011) promotion of personalizing education through online mediums. Web-based instruction provides students the opportunity to miss formal lecture times – and may increase their resiliency in the class. No more are the days where students who have to work shift work, who could not sleep the night before, who have anxiety too crippling to get out of bed, have to suffer academically. This should be the norm in all classrooms. But can we go further? Can we provide students with tools for Universal Design of Testing? Can we test students knowledge of the course content in a way that accommodates their strengths and in ways that foster developing their weaknesses? This is the next step Carleton can take in ensuring that education and training is accessible for all.


Bernacchio, C., & Mullen, M. (2007). Universal design for learning. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 31(2). 167-169. DOI: 10.2975/31.2.2007.167.169

Canadian Human Rights Act, (R. S. C. 1985, c. H-6) Retrieved from

Dean, T., Lee-Post, A., & Hapke, H. (2016). Universal Design for Learning in Teaching Large Lecture Classes. Journal of Marketing Education. DOI: 10.1177/0273475316662104

Devlin, R. & Pothier, D. (2006). Introduction: Toward a Critical Theory of Dis-Citizenship. In R. Devlin & D. Pothier (Eds.) Critical Disability Theory. Vancouver: UBC Press. 1-25.

Hanes, R. (2016). Critical Disability Theory: Developing a Post-Social Model of Disability. In J. Robertson & G. Larson (Eds.) Disability and Social Change: A Progressive Canadian Approach (pp. 65-79)Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Hanley, J. (2018). Reconceptualizing Autism: An Alternative Paradigm for Social Work Practice. Journal of Progressive Human Services. 29(1). 61-80.

Kieran, L. & Anderson, C. (2018). Connecting Universal Design for Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching. Education and Urban Society.  DOI: 10.1177/0013124518785012

Rae, A. & Samuels, P. (2011). Web-based Personalised System of Instruction: An effective approach for diverse cohorts with virtual learning environments? Computers & Education, 57(4). 2423-2431. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.06.003

Shreeve, M. W. (2008). Beyond the Didactic Classroom: Educational Models to Encourage Active Student Involvement in Learning. The Journal of Chiropractic Education, 22(1). 23-28.

Smith, S. G. (2018). The Effects of Didactic Training and Behavioural Skills Training on Staff Implementation of a Stimulus Preference Assessment with Adults with Disabilities. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Retrieved from