The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

CEOs corner

Dara Ryder



About the Author

Opinion: The ALTITUDE Charter can help us to operationalise an ‘inclusion is everyone’s business’ approach

Like many in the growing community of tertiary education professionals interested in adopting a universal design (UD) approach in their practice, I came upon concepts of inclusion, UD and universal design for learning (UDL) by accident.

My career as a further education and training (FET) teacher in the field of music technology was relatively short-lived, just a few years, but it completely changed the direction of my life. I went into the role in the late 2000's fully intent on being a top music production engineer with some teaching as a side gig, and I left it fully intent on a career researching and promoting inclusion with some music as a side gig. It’s a strange one, right? So how did it happen?

Like most FET classrooms, mine was pretty diverse. I had mature learners mixed with school-leavers, learners from other parts of Europe and from Africa whose second language was English, and several students with disclosed disabilities. Having just a few years earlier qualified from Queens University where my classroom was overwhelmingly white, Irish, and middle class, I was in awe of the rich tapestry of humanity in front of me – but also as a teacher, frankly a little overwhelmed by it.

To say I didn’t know what I was doing when I started is kind of an understatement, but I was eager to put in a shift to get better, and gradually I did. Even though I was never a really great teacher, the students liked me - at least I think they did. Most likely, this was because I gave my time outside my paid hours to stay back with them, arranged with management that I would stay late so the recording studio could stay open for them to practise, and put in a shift to provide constant one to one feedback and support, way above the hours I was paid to. I even made little videos of practical recording techniques which they could rewatch, which was not common at the time. Basically, I thought of all that as being part of the vocation, a sign that I was committed to the job, and I guess the students could see I was trying.

In particular, I went above and beyond to help the diverse learners in my class, particularly those with disabilities, mostly if I’m honest for the selfish reason that I was just very curious about the challenges they faced and how I could help them to overcome them. I kept on like this for a while, thinking frankly that I was doing a great service to these students until it eventually clicked with me, the 'Ah-ha' moment' the biggest challenge they faced in the classroom was ME!

The dyslexia, the English as a second language, the stress and anxiety, were, it dawned on me, just the normal expression of human variability. The biggest challenge they faced was that I hadn’t considered that variability in my teaching – neither had the programme descriptors for the modules I taught - and I was reacting in the moment. I was forever changed in how I viewed people and the ‘challenges they face’ from then on. I began to see barriers everywhere, not in individuals, but in the environment, the attitudes, the society. I went from being very ignorant around this to being hyper-aware, and it was that shift that drove my curiosity further and ultimately led to a career change for me.

I think this ‘Ah-ha’ shift in thinking will resonate with many staff in the tertiary community.

I joined AHEAD to work on research in the field of inclusive education, and, soon after, I was introduced to the broad concept of universal design and the more niche concept of universal design for learning. These were liberating times for me, as these frameworks gave form and expression to what I had experienced and instinctively felt as an educator, and provided me with an evidence-based approach to respond.

In AHEAD, we began a long road of advocacy for the UDL approach in teaching and learning. We partnered with our friends in University College Dublin and the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning to develop and deliver the UDL Badge -  a 10-week 25-hour programme introducing the framework to FET and HE educators and engaging them to apply UDL in real-time in their practice. The ‘train the trainer' model, and the opportunity to partner with previously trained facilitators in MOOC-style ‘national rollouts’ offered opportunities to reach large numbers if the appetite was there.

The response was astounding, and the badge has gone from strength to strength ever since, with almost 4,000 badges issued by the partnership (AHEAD, UCD, the Forum and all of the wonderful Peer Group Facilitators who work with us) since its inception in 2017. It turned out, there was a lot more practitioners than we imagined, who, like me, were looking for a methodology and practice to give form to what they were experiencing in their efforts to respond to diversity in their classrooms.

In the early days of this effort when momentum was gaining, we perhaps naively thought “if we train them all ... .like all of them ... .then everything will change”. We’re social justice folks – dreaming is what we do best! And, don’t get me wrong, a huge amount has positively changed in no small part down to the huge effort of the committed community behind the badge, and the work they’ve been doing to share UDL practice in their education and training boards (ETBs) and higher education institutions (HEIs). Thousands more committed practitioners began to look at their teaching in a new way, seeking opportunities to build in more flexibility, accessibility, student voice and choice into their programme design. But two new ‘A-ha’ moments in recent years have helped us to understand that we have a lot more to do. The feedback from students and practitioners we’ve been having that instigated these moments can be paraphrased like this:

Student: ‘It’s great that you are doing all this inclusive teaching practice, but I can’t access the classroom in the first place'.

Teacher: ‘I want to do the right thing for my students, but I’m already overworked, and I can’t keep going to the well’.

Reflecting on my previous effort to go above and beyond for my students as ‘part of the vocation’- staying late without pay to ensure they could access the studio, working unpaid to create those additional materials - I realise that I could never have sustained it. I’d have been burnt out and probably divorced before too long! And for all the huge progress that has been made on introducing UDL to our classrooms, it’s been built on the energy of a committed national community, but energy is a finite resource.

Equally, the student perspectives point us towards the need to widen this effort to embed universal design ‘beyond the classroom’, building commitment to its application in learner supports and services, the physical environment, and the digital environment.

Basically, it’s time we matured as a sector in how we approach this effort.

We have long been espousing the notion of ‘Inclusion is everyone’s business’, but it’s crucial that we now move to consider how we operationalise that idea, and support it more effectively at the strategic and policy levels of our institutions to put this work on a more sustainable footing. To meet this challenge the development of a National Charter for Universal Design in Tertiary Education is called for and the ALTITUDE Charter is under development. This process is explained in the accompanying article in this edition of the AHEAD Journal (17).

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