Universal Design in Law Librarianship

We are more alike than different … but is different really a bad thing?

by Aesha Duval

This fall, I took a virtual Introduction to Special Education course at a local university. I took the class for a teaching certification that I was required to obtain back when I was a school librarian several years ago. I always wanted to complete the program and this summer I decided, why not? That class was different from what I was used to. I didn’t have to write any research papers, but there was a classroom observation component that was new to me. I wasn’t prepared for how much this course would change how I perceive and interact with persons with disabilities, and how I view accessibility in our law libraries and access to justice.

Library browsing.

The course focused on using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in teaching. UDL is a framework for designing a learning experience for a wide spectrum of learners, not just the “average” learner, as many educators did in the past. Some still do. Experts now say the average learner is an illusion. Teachers who use UDL offer choices and options to students and remove barriers to learning, not just for students with disabilities, but for all students.

During one of our classes, the professor asked us to share our thoughts on a video, We’re More Alike than Different, featuring individuals with Down Syndrome.  The premise of the video is that persons with disabilities are like us. They are people first and we are all part of one human family with similar hopes, dreams, fears, and obstacles. We all desire to be loved and to have a happy, fulfilled life and stability. We should not limit the possibilities of a person simply because they are different.

But then something else came to mind. Being different doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It made me think of a response that some people give when confronted with racism: “I don’t see color.” I find that phrase to be offensive because, to not see color, is to not see me. The phrase, “We are more alike than different,” might lead us to conclude that our differences are irrelevant. That our differences should not matter. But being different contributes to the rich diversity of our community and this whole world. And to not embrace what makes us different, is to not embrace what makes us who we are. 

What I learned about universal design from this course can be applied to all areas of law librarianship, not just in the law school setting. Law librarians are teachers and educators too and children with disabilities eventually grow up to become adults with disabilities. They become law students and lawyers with disabilities. Whether it be intellectual, emotional, or developmental impairments; a specific learning disability such as ADHD, dyslexia, or dysgraphia; autism spectrum disorder; language barriers; visual or hearing impairments; or physical and health disabilities, we work with persons with disabilities every day and we may not even know it. Many disabilities are invisible, but not less important. 

Classroom with teacher and students.

We have a responsibility as educators to limit the barriers persons with disabilities are faced with in our libraries and ensure that the needs of all people regardless of their ability, disability, or challenges, are met and are afforded the opportunity to express themselves.

Here are some things we can do to start thinking about accessibility and explore accessibility issues unique to law libraries in both our physical and digital spaces:

  • When planning for both space and research materials, law librarians need to consider many different types of disabilities. The idea is that when spaces and items are designed with the broadest range of people in mind, the results are better for everyone.
  • Librarians have long been advocates for equitable access. It is critical for law librarians to possess basic knowledge of the legal accessibility requirements and how to go about meeting them. 
  • Universal design is a paradigm for planning and designing architecture, services, and information resources that are usable for everyone without special accommodations. Law librarians should advocate for and create accessible legal materials and better instruction.

Planning for equitable access, both physical and digital, from the start – the fundamental idea of universal design – results in better libraries for everyone.


Video: Intro to Universal Design for Your Lesson Plans

Book: Introduction to Law Librarianship – Chapter 3. Accessibility


Cheney, Mari. “The Hearing Impaired Law Librarian: Navigating Silent Spaces.” AALL Spectrum, vol. 25, no. 3, January/February 2021, p. 34-38. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.aallar/spectrum0025&i=136.

deMaine, Susan David. “From Disability to Usability in Online Instruction.” Law Library Journal 106, no. 4 (Dec. 2014): 531-561. https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/2871/.

Knight, Dolly M. “Providing Disabled Patrons with Access to Legal Resources.” AALL Spectrum, vol. 22, no. 2, November/December 2017, p. 43-46. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.aallar/spectrum0022&i=105.

Seidler, Rena. “Shedding Light on Legal Research Accessibility for the Blind.” AALL Spectrum, vol. 23, no. 3, January/February 2019, p. 12-15. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.aallar/spectrum0023&i=114.

Shucha, Bonnie. “Ask a Director: Making the Library More Accessible.” AALL Spectrum, vol. 23, no. 3, January/February 2019, p. 28-29. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.aallar/spectrum0023&i=130.

Zook, Genevieve. “More Alike than Different: Supporting Disabilities at the Reference Desk.” AALL Spectrum, vol. 18, no. 5, March 2014, p. 20-22. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.aallar/spectrum0018&i=210.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.