Flying Pigs
Credit: Citi®


In 2005, 20 years after Mace named and introduced the concept, Universal Design awareness levels and adoption rates were still low among the American public. Without increased, effective action, UD could remain little-used for many more decades, thus forestalling badly needed improvements in the quality of life.

Based on the idea that effective social change starts with the young, we chose young teens (specifically, ages 12-16) as EXCELLENT potential change agents to promote the Universal Design concept. We developed the UD Learnsite to address the question, "Can American and International youth spread the UD word at a faster rate than its previous slow creep?"

The UD Learnsite (hereafter UDLS) capitalizes on selected traits of pre-adolescents and teenagers.4 They are listed below in order of importance in our decision to target young teens:

  • Begin experimenting and learning by doing
  • Use logic and reasoning first, then abstract thinking
  • Have high energy and need lots of activity
  • Like to achieve and be seen as competent
  • May recognize, and can exchange, a diversity of ideas
  • Seek independence but need praise and adult recognition
  • Need more freedom and want a voice in decisions
  • LESS influenced by parents, MORE by peers ('pack mentality')
  • Are concerned about body and appearance

4Adapted from the Afterschool Alliance and National Middle School Association's web sites (2003). The annual Month of the Young Adolescent (October) was initiated by the NMSA. CLICK HERE.

The National Middle School Association (NMSA) suggests that the general public has lacked an adequate understanding of youth in their transition period between childhood and adolescence. As a result, young adolescents often have been 'growing up forgotten' (NMSA website, 2003). Therefore, we're offering young teens a very important job!

During early adolescence (ages 10-15), young people leave childhood and move toward full adolescence, making major decisions about their values, standards, attitudes, and personal beliefs. Many of these decisions direct their behavior THROUGHOUT their lives. Strong educational partnerships between the school, parents, students, and the community are needed so that every young teen will have the opportunity to become ALL s/he can AND should be (NMSA, 2003). The UDLS offers content and activities that can involve ALL members in meeting that goal.

Because of the abstract nature and complexities involved in applying UD in the real world, we chose sixth graders through high school sophomores as the optimal age group to disseminate the UD concept. We tried to make the lessons equally engaging to ALL target teens, regardless of gender OR the vast behavioral gap between ages 12 and16. The UDLS lessons include "Advanced Options" for Senior High students, but high-achieving early teens with a real thirst for knowledge of UD may also try them.

We believe that many classes or after-school groups within the target age range will accept our UD challenge as an exciting and worthwhile community service. First, they can learn about UD online, then gain expertise by practicing at (grand)parents' homes and the school. Finally, the UDLS teaches youth to develop and implement UD Awareness Campaign service projects to share their UD knowledge and enthusiasm with their community.

Cartoon of a duck's head
No, it's NOT a frazzled teacher or parent of a young teen! It's the logo of the Nature Conservancy--a young "marketing" bird who's probably recognized by young people across the whole U. S.!


Based on a brief educational methods update, we developed several assumptions about YOung YOuth (so-named by our church youth THEMSELVES) as potential UD change agents. Mixed with scraps of the literature on adolescence and social learning theory, we hope the assumptions will put us on the same playing field and encourage you to prepare a NEW wave of young change agents.

  1. The UDLS focus on small group interaction and hands-on application acknowledges that students of all ages learn through play (e.g., discovery and problem-solving) and engagement (organizing, re-arranging, and sharing experiences and solutions with others) in appropriate and meaningful settings (e.g., actively working to know their real world). In short, our optimal result is total development and enhancement of their self-esteem.

  2. Our target age group is poised to recognize the need for universally-designed consumer products for ALL. Young people in middle school and junior/senior high are at the ages when human differences appear and become particularly interesting both to them AND their peers. For example, as growth spurts bring wide ranges in height and size, youth learn that "One size does NOT fit all-or even MOST!"

  3. As their real boundaries widen (via bicycle, bus, air, virtual web trips, parents' vehicles, and maybe even their own car), teens also become aware of diversity and INequity--parts of "becoming" in a fast-changing, stressful world. After learning that UD emerged from the disability movement, UDLS participants will understand why accessibility is a keystone of UD, but offers SO MUCH MORE.

  4. As a group, teens are NOT too interested in learning about the past, but ARE quite invested in what they can do in the future. Today's youth are more likely to watch television than read a book, and be more interested in learning (together) by doing than by suffering through bo-o-o-oring lectures. In preparing the UDLS, we took the above as our mantra, and TRIED to keep it short....

  5. Teens use the Net as a homework helper, reference tool, method of collaboration, source of advice, AND replacement for books and newspapers. Web-surfing and clicking on LINKS can be key parts of their educational instruction outside the classroom or after-school programs.

    Web learning is unique in its application to distance education (that's UDLS!), independent study (including surfer self-study), AND global student partnerships. It lends itself to student-centered, interactive small group assignments that apply concepts and give them relevance in the teen milieu. BOTH can achieve more effective learning.

  6. Many youth already exceed their teachers' and leaders' levels of computer literacy. We want this UD educational package to help bridge that digital divide by helping teachers use the Net easily while having the most computer-literate students assist (discretely) in teaching their peers.

  7. Young teens tend to be enthusiastic, open to new experiences, and collectively have wide circles of influence. They could learn about UD about the same time they begin to make independent spending decisions. Thus, their demand for COOL but NOT necessarily expensive UD products may influence not only their own choices but also those of their (gift-giving) friends, siblings, parents, and grandparents.

  8. Finally, we assume that with the help of the UDLS and their Guides, teens can stimulate effective UD demand from a market potentially large enough to support increased development of mass marketed, affordable UD products and places. The results: A safer, more convenient life for ALL people-ALL over the world.


We hope you agree with all or some of the assumptions upon which we based the UD Learnsite. Feel free to comment and make suggestions after completing your test flight. We'd be delighted to receive your email feedback via the re-usable form in Section GS-1. Your input can help assure that the sites include age-appropriate, relevant content that engages, amuses, and inspires our target teens TO UNIVERSAL DESIGN ACTION!

Credit: Safety and Health Zone