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An expanding universe of design

Items created for some can be helpful for all

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Picture this: You slip your phone into the side pocket of the hooded sweatshirt you’re wearing … only to have it slide out as soon as you sit down. It’s a common problem wheelchair users experience when transferring in or out of their chairs, but it can happen to anyone. One solution: vertical pockets that keep items in place for everyone—an example of a concept called universal design.

Universal design is the idea that spaces, products, and services should be designed for everyone, regardless of ability or disability, and that designing to accommodate one group helps others as well. It’s often most visible in physical spaces—for example, ramps that accommodate wheelchairs also support people using strollers or hand trucks. But universal design goes much further. Take the hoodie example: It isn’t just theoretical; it’s one of the elements incorporated by Social Surge, a universally designed clothing line co-founded by Meredith Aleigha Wells ’17.

Ready to wear

Illustration of a pair of sweatshirts

Wells—an actor, singer, dancer, and writer—and their co-founders started Social Surge while the theater industry was shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. “We all had similar thoughts and feelings toward the fashion industry and what it was lacking, and what we could create.”

A musical theater major at UMass with a work-study job in the costume shop, Wells was often tasked with making clothing easy for performers to change into and out of. “I would have to quick-rig things all the time and put snaps instead of buckles on shoes, or put Velcro underneath a line of buttons so you could rip it open for a quick change,” they say. “From that moment, I always thought it was silly that we didn’t make all clothing accessible.”

Wells, a wheelchair user, points to the importance of taking feedback directly from disabled customers to ensure good design. “With Social Surge it’s a human-centered approach,” says Wells. “We’re taking in what our consumers’ needs are and designing pieces of clothing around those needs.

I like to think of the way that Social Surge operates as very similar to the way that 20 years ago there was the big push for plus-size clothing, but now you don’t really see that labeling as much anymore,” Wells adds. “You’re starting to see a shift and all clothing lines having a more inclusive size range.”

‘A strengths-based approach’

Illustration of a pair of doorknobs

A different type of universal design is being implemented right here on campus. Kirsten Helmer, senior lecturer and director of programming for diversity, inclusion, and equity at the Center for Teaching and Learning, places her focus on universal design for learning (UDL), training instructors across the university how to make their teaching more accessible to all.

“UDL is an evidence-based framework that’s grounded in lots of research,” says Helmer. “It comes from the premise that all students can be successful in their learning when a course and the lessons are designed in ways that make them accessible and provide multiple pathways to achieve the intended learning outcome.”

Helmer presents workshops for UMass instructors and grad students on incorporating the principles of UDL, and offers consultations to campus departments, schools, and colleges. She also developed and leads the Teaching for Inclusiveness, Diversity, and Equity (TIDE) Ambassadors Fellowship, which allows faculty to take a deeper dive into UDL, among other topics, and bring those concepts back to their own departments.

‘It actually helps everybody’

Illustration of a pair of curb designs

One of those TIDE ambassadors is Tammy Rahhal, associate chair of teaching, chief undergraduate advisor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and winner of the prestigious Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2020. Rahhal has also participated in creating hybrid courses for the expanding UMass Flex program.

As the instructor of a 470-person introductory psychology course, incorporating more flexibility into her teaching may have seemed like a tall order. But, says Rahhal, “One thing I learned as a TIDE scholar is if you can make an accommodation for the entire class that benefits the student who actually needs the accommodation, it actually helps everybody in the class.”

For example, a student who had difficulty hearing asked Rahhal if the videos shown in class could be captioned. “I showed the first of these videos in class that semester, and I realized that I and every single student in the class was reading the captions as we watched the video. So, this was something done to help one student and it ended up benefiting 470 students, and I’ve benefited myself.”

Kirsten Helmer discusses inclusive syllabus design on the Think UDL podcast.