Leaving Disabled People Out of Discussions of Universal Design

When I first glanced at the title of the most recent post at the APA Blog, “APA Talking Teaching: Accessibility and UDL,” I was pleased. I had assumed that the post would continue the work on Universal Design (UD) and learning that I and other disabled philosophers have produced on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, in the Dialogues on Disability series, and on the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, as well as in articles and books.

Authored by Christina Hendricks, the post is derived from an online discussion about accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that Hendricks facilitated as part of a series of online discussions organized by the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy. Hendricks sums up the motivation for the discussion that she facilitated (and the subsequent blog post) like this:

I believe that designing our courses, assignments, presentations and class discussions in a way that is as accessible as possible for as many students as possible is both an ethical imperative and foundational to supporting effective student learning. Though there will always be a need for academic accommodations for some students to ensure full access, there are quite a few things instructors can do in the design and delivery of their courses to make them more accessible at the outset.

This rationale for UDL is both pertinent and persuasive, effectively underscoring the fact that the accessibility of pedagogy and educational contexts more generally is first and foremost the responsibility of educators, institutions, and society at large rather than a burden that should continue to fall upon already disadvantaged disabled students, among others.

Nevertheless, I think that Hendricks’s post should not be listened to/read hastily nor accepted uncritically. Indeed, despite my initial reaction to the title of the post, I found this APA Blog post disappointing. First, the post uses a rudimentary definition of disability, suggesting that this definition is uncontested and progressive. Second, the post refers to a rudimentary definition of the “social model,” suggesting that the definition given is apt. Third, the post seems to indicate that the social model itself (or at least, this understanding of it) goes hand in hand with the principles of UD(L), citing only a SEP entry to establish the authoritative status of the model. Fourth, the category “people with disabilities” is taken to be self-evident and uncontestable rather than identified as a category that is rendered contestable by the very assumptions that underpin the principles of UD.

In other words, the post seems relatively uninformed about philosophy and theory of disability and indeed disregards the work of disabled philosophers (and other philosophers of disability) who have played a leading role, or rather, the leading role in ongoing discussions in philosophy about UD and UDL. Insofar as the post does not recognize these discussions, it also does not acknowledge that the ongoing discussions about UD and UDL in which disabled philosophers and other philosophers of disability engage are part of larger discourses about accessibility that take place in a broader community of disabled and other anti-ableist theorists and activists. For despite the impression that Hendricks’s post and the references that accompany it give, UD and UDL are not the inventions of university administrations and their delegated offices. In short, crucial aspects of inclusion are missing from this well-intended post at the APA Blog.

Below, I have provided some references to work on UD and UDL that philosophers and theorists of disability have produced. Additional references and information on these subjects can be found in the respective (extensive) bibliographies of the books and articles, as well as in the archives of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog.


Dalyrmple-Fraser, C, and Shelley Tremain. 2018. Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews C Dalyrmple-Fraser. Discrimination and Disadvantage (blog). November.

Dolmage, Jay T. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hamraie, Aimi. 2017. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Maybee, Julie, and Shelley Tremain. 2018. Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Julie Maybee. Discrimination and Disadvantage (blog). July.

Tremain, Shelley. 2013.  Introducing Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol. 33, No. 4.

Tremain, Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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