Literacy, Universal Design and Stevie Wonder

Literacy means the ability to read or write. There are two main ways to think about literacy. One way sees problems with reading or writing as problems that belong to a person. The other way sees problems with reading or writing as problems that belong to the things we read or write. Stevie Wonder wants people to look at the problems in the things we read or write. We know this, because in January 2009, he went to the Consumer Electronics Show to ask for vision-free design. He talked about everything from washing machines to touch screens. See the story at

In the past, there was only one way to think about literacy. It goes like this. Reading and writing are skills that some people have. Reading and writing are problems for other people. If there are problems, then the problems need to be fixed. Some fixes are for the people who have problems with reading and writing. Special education and rehabilitation are two examples. Other fixes are special methods. (Adaptive and modified are other words that mean the same thing as special.) For example, people who are blind or have low vision can use Braille or large print. This way of looking at literacy and disability is called the medical model.

Today, we also look at the things that people need to read or write. For example, when elevators have floor numbers in text and in Braille, they are providing access to more people. When we look at the things around people with disabilities, we are using the social model of disability.

We can take it one more step. Universal Design is the term used when things are made to include as many people as possible. It is not just for people with disabilities. By now, everyone knows that all types of people use ramps and automatic door openers. They may be pushing a stroller or pulling a cart. They may like walking up a ramp more than they like climbing stairs. You can find out more information about universal design at:

For example, we could provide access for readers who are blind or visually impaired by offering audio recordings of visual materials. That is a special method. We could make all of our materials audio, but then d/Deaf people could not hear them. By offering a choice between print and audio, everyone can choose for him or her self. This method also includes people who have low literacy in English, people who can see but have other reasons they cannot read (print disability), and people who simply prefer one way of getting information to the other. This is universal design.

Stevie Wonder asked for universal design in electronics. Vision-free design is not only for people who are blind or have low vision. In fact, one of the people who works with Mr. Wonder uses the vision-free method, because he likes it better.

Not everything can be made vision free. There are ways to make things in print for as many people as possible. For ideas about using universal design to make print materials for everyone, go to:

Submitted by Jane Gravel