Shanghai's Universal Designs

In December of 2015 I flew from Sydney to Shanghai, with colleague and friend Greg Alchin, on invitation to speak about autism, technology and Universal Design for Learning at two events. The first was for the United Nations, specifically the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific arm of the United Nations, at a three day workshop they were hosting in coordination with the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. The second event was a seminar for the Shanghai School for the Blind, with staff from the school joining teaching staff from Pudong Special Education School to participate in a forum on accessibility and the utilisation of special interests in the classroom.

The invitation to speak at the United Nations came about in response to the iPad work we’ve been implementing at our Aspect Hunter School and across other schools and services in Autism Spectrum Australia. Of particular focus were two facets of our work - one was our utilisation of iPad as a tool for Alternative and Augmentative Communication not only at our school with our students, but too with our Educational Outreach work in local and remote regional areas; and two was our utilisation of iPad as a tool to engage the special interests of our students in order to address academic and core competency outcomes through creative workflows. The title of the United Nations workshop was ‘Information for All: Accessible Knowledge, Information and Communication for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific’. Government leaders from the region, as well as specialists across a range of accessibility fields, all presented towards this focus on understanding how knowledge, information and communication could be best facilitated for those with disabilities, with a view to broaden the conversation beyond explicit disability towards a more Universal Design standpoint where accessibility was at the heart of all societal decisions and designs. Of the 4.1 billion people living in Asia and the Pacific, over 640 million have a diagnosed disability, with a projection that by 2020 there will be 2 billion people with a diagnosed disability.

A unique insight into the need for a Universal Design approach to supporting the many individuals with a diagnosed disability was presented when we visited the Shanghai Public Library as part of the workshop. The library has an incredibly forward thinking approach to being an accessible space, particularly when compared to the local libraries in my area - there were a range of terminals to search for books, read through historic documents, and check in and out resources, with terminals for vision impaired users with screen reading software, terminals for hearing impaired users with closed captioning software, and terminals for those who need neither. And within this range of terminals we have a challenging consideration with regards to accessibility and Universal Design - instead of different terminals for different sensory disabilities, why could these not all be accommodated through a single device? It would take a redesign of the original terminal, certainly, to have the capacity to support a number of disability related needs that engage the functions of the library terminal, but within this redesign we would eliminate the need to have seperate versions of the terminal, each for a different disability. We engage this same challenge in mainstream classrooms all the time - when we talk about particular learning strategies that are most advantageous for children on the autism spectrum, we try to frame them as best practice teaching practices that will benefit all children, not just those on the autism spectrum. Having an explicit focus on emotional regulation strategies is not just something that needs to be prescribed for children on the autism spectrum alone, for example, but rather it is all children that gain from exposure to this pedagogy. Of course, this doesn’t dissuade from the individualisation of differentiation, either - of course we need to tailor practices to each individual student rather than a broad stroke to approximate need, but we should not get lost at the extremes of individualisation, but always reflex back to the core approach of designing our classrooms, and our societies, to be universally accessible to all.

I met with a young man on the autism spectrum who had found work at the Shanghai Public Library in the children’s literature section, taking responsibility for managing all the books in this facility. He appeared well supported by the staff, and had found a way to engage what presented as his special interest in the dewey decimal system and the order and arrangement of books. On the way out of the library there was discussion with an individual who is deafblind, about her capacity to access the website for the library to search for materials using a braille keyboard hooked up to a computer terminal. One response was that she would not be able to access the computer, due to the pressure this would place on ‘healthy people to modify their regular routines to accomodate the needs of those with disabilities’. In other words, braille keyboard functionality would require a redesign of the library website in a manner that might change the experience and expectations that regular users might have in relation to use of the site. This taps right into the centre of what we talk about with Universal Design for Learning - there is absolutely a way to design the library website to be completely accessible to deafblind users, and those who require screen reading and closed caption functionality and other sensory and cognitive differation options, while providing a quality website experience for all users regardless if they require or not these accessibility designs. Consider again the school classroom, and how analogous this is to our consideration of Universal Design and autism pedagogy there - how do we redesign the classroom experience so that it can be accessed by everybody? Rather than saying we can’t change the way we teach because it would require ‘healthy people to modify their regular routines to accommodate the needs of those with disabilities’, we would instead frame our intervention as a mode of teaching that accommodates the varied needs of every student, and indeed through this variance we heighten the outcomes that all can achieve due to the creative intelligence and intentional design behind establishing more accessible and progressive classroom experiences. The Shanghai Public Library is still a world beyond any other library I have spent time in, and yet there is still more work to do with regards to not considering disability as a seperate existential experience to those individuals who do not recognise as having a disability, but rather with a focus on considering the designs inherent to all systems that will allow all users full and natural access, beyond seperate categories of engagement. As a closing note on the Shanghai Public Library, I was absolutely entranced by the beautiful Maker Space they have there, with 3D Printers and iPads and a whole assortment of beautiful homeware and artworks created by individuals with disabilities working in the space, as well as the range of accessible e-readers for loan and use in the library, such as iPad Airs with an iOS app designed by the library for reading its texts. The library was a testament to some very forward thinking ways of engaging accessibility, and it is with respect to this and the library seeking feedback on further future directions that we discussed an understanding of Universal Design for Learning to further see their approach flourish for the societal betterment of all.

The United Nations workshops I presented, on our utilisation of iPad as a tool for Alternative and Augmentative Communication at our school and in conjunction with our Educational Outreach work, and our utilisation of iPad as a tool to engage the special interests of our students in order to address academic and core competency outcomes through creative workflows, drew upon the workflows and examples I’ve described across my four books: ‘Reaching All Learners’, ‘The iPad Model Classroom’, ‘The Digital Organic’ and ‘Minecraft In Your Classroom’. The AAC component of the presentation drew upon recent experiences from the Road Warrior journey that I went on with my Aspect colleague Mark Durie, and the remote regional schools we visited on the journey, providing training and skill development around Proloquo2Go, Pictello, Aacorn, ChoiceWorks and related apps. On a side note, the update to ChoiceWorks involving the video modelling potentials across its boards is absolutely brilliant. I was fortunate enough to provide the default video model template for a few boards in the update - when you download the ChoiceWorks update, you’ll see me modelling how to respond to feeling worried, and you’ll see me waiting at the bus stop on the Waiting Board. Beyond AAC, the other workshop I presented at the United Nations on utilising iPad towards the special interests of our students was fuelled by a recent presentation I delivered at Mark Oliphant College in Adelaide on the value of modelling our own special interests, such as fishing, or playing the pipe organ, or doing ballroom dancing, for our students, and how they respond with a perspectivising of their own special interests, framing them in a way that allows their special interest to enact a functional and balanced quality of life. By way of example I showcased some of the Minecraft work we do, and the way in which this special interest can be utilised to access academic and core competency learning outcomes across a wide ranging of domains. This utilisation of technology for individuals with autism was quite foreign to a number of the government officials from Asia and the Pacific - one prominent official asked, “How do you get a child with autism to use an iPad without biting it and throwing it across the room?”, revealing a particular lack of understanding about the phenomenology of autism and the broad variance with which the condition presents and need to be suitably supported. From these presentations I was able to connect with a number of ministers from foreign parliaments who expressed a will to open educational practices in a direction that allows for the utilisation of technology such as iPad to creatively allow students with diverse learning needs to express themselves beyond capacities currently allowed, which in itself was a wonderful outcome of the workshop. The event led to the recommendation of twenty action points to be taken by member states and other participants, aiming to collaboratively build the legal and technical capacity to improve on information accessibility. 

On the last day of the workshop I headed up into the Song Jiang neighbourhood where the United Nations workshop was being held, inside the Sunshine Rehabilitation Centre, and traveled beyond rows of hundreds of beautifully identical apartment buildings on completely vacant streets to a near-empty shopping complex with a video arcade and fast food chains. I went to the KFC there and, struggling to express myself with my translation apps I had brought with me, I quickly took a few photos, searched Safari for an image or two, and used Keynote to present my desired meal to the girl taking orders. Luckily, all went to plan! My own personal AAC moment in a foreign land. 

On my last day in Shanghai, Greg and I were invited to present a seminar at the Shanghai School for the Blind for staff at the school and at local Pudong Special School. We were given a tour of the beautiful school - never have I seen a more neatly organised school - with its incredible statues of vision impaired students that introduce the focus of the school, its colourful outdoor play equipment, and the classrooms inside with young children drinking their morning milk from little tin cups, it was an incredible experience that resonated with the side of me that sees this sort of education as the only real education, the functional philosophy of a life given strength and tools, Nietzsche at the front gate welcoming in the future. After the tour, Greg and I delivered a two hour workshop on accessibility and technology. Greg, a maestro in Universal Design, showcased a number of accessibility features within iBooks and other frameworks, as well as a range of vision related apps that allow students to recognise the money denomination they are holding, the level of light present in a given space, and many other functions as described more fully by David Woodbridge in his terrific textbook ‘iSee’. For my presentation I again discussed, via an ultra-fast translator, the virtues of engaging the special interests of our students towards their bigger goal outcomes. Person centred planning, the value of understanding where our students week daily enjoyment, their motivations to engage in the work we present, and the outstanding content and results that students can deliver when we help them work towards the trajectory of their passions, filtered through the practical daily applications of these goals through iPad implementation, made for an enjoyable hour of discussion and demonstration that has since yielded some lovely ongoing dialogues with staff across these Shanghai schools. I would love to foster some international partnerships between our schools, such as pen pal programs, sharing of soundscape compositions and other content creation that explicate our own local spaces that students can hand back and forth to each other.

The week I spent I spent in Shanghai was one of the most memorable in many recent years. From the initial rising out of the airport to see a mysterious neon red flying saucer apartment building facing the tarmac, to the old jazz bar I headed to that initial night in the Bund Region, and onto the many exotic experiences that presented themselves in and around the focus of being able to showcase the work we’re doing at Autism Spectrum Australia to both the United Nations and their associated partners and also the wonderful educators at the Shanghai School for the Blind and Pudong Special School, the week was a humbling and thrilling experience that resounded for me so many of the reasons why those of us in special education find ourselves so at home in the educational space this specialness provides, albeit with a view that this special education must fervently look to the future and its Universal goals of better access and education and existential benefits for all.

Bonus, below a few extra photographs from my journey: