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Barrier University


As I thought about the work I have done so far in my career training adult professionals, I realized that I hadn't even gone far enough.  With the new skills I have learned in this class, I needed to go beyond Power Points, Videos and handouts.  Although this college path is named Information and Learning Technology, I decided to go analog.  At least two of my ILT professors have shown me the value of starting the design process without the use of technology.  This method appeals to me and seems to allow my mind to wander more freely and innovate easily.   

Although I am not a gamer in the typical digital sense, I do love to play board games with my family.  There is nothing that focuses my mind better than the physical act of rolling a well weighted pair of die on a perfectly resonant wooden table.  I've noticed that others take pleasure in this too. Perhaps this is because games are interactive.  Interactivity is an excellent way for learning to take place. (Dirksen, 2016)  I decided to take advantage of this love of board gaming by creating my own. 

board game.jpg

Design Process

The Cards


I first decided to write down some of the issues that students with disabilities have when they maneuver their way through universities.  I used my own ten years of experience working with these students to recall various barriers that they encounter along the way.  These barriers can be physical, digital and especially attitudinal.  I then gathered other anecdotes from some of my colleagues in the Disability Services business and students themselves to find even more material.  


Using Microsoft Word, I created cards divided into five disability categories and put the appropriate anecdotes on the backs of these cards.  I came up with 10 of each which fit onto one standard sized paper and printed them out double sided on card stock. 


The Board

After talking to people about these barrier cards, I came up with the idea of calling the board game "Barrier University."  In spite of the fact that I came up with many barrier ideas here at UCCS and at my previous institution, Community College of Denver, I didn't want to insult my home institution by behaving as if they were the only institution with numerous barriers.  That is not the case.  I've heard horror stories from my counterparts at other institutions for years.  We are all similar, some better in some areas and some worse.  

I put a few events around the path to make it feel like a school.  I have move-in day at the residences which causes a huge traffic jam at UCCS.  The pancake breakfast is a tradition early in the semester.  I used some of my own sketches as well as free clipart to decorate.  


The Tokens

I wanted the tokens to represent my categories of disabilities.  I wrestled with this bit at first because in my heart of hearts, I don't believe in categories of disabilities.  Everyone is unique and we all have areas of weakness and strength.  In our younger years most of us go through growth spurts where we are physically awkward and perhaps clumsy.  In young adulthood, many of us are lacking in cognitive maturity and the ability to be logical.  We may also be lacking in an adult vocabulary or even reading skills.  Some pregnant women need more bathroom breaks.  Some older men do too.  If our diets and sleep habits are not excellent, many of us go through times of severe constipation, obesity, fatigue, inability to think well.  If we play sports, we may get injured and need mobility aids.  As time goes by our sight and hearing fade a bit.  Some of us suffer from headaches and temporarily lose the ability to focus well.  At best, all of us are only temporarily able bodied.  We can't be categorized very easily.  But I categorized for the sake of the game and a broader understanding.  

Coginitive/Traumatic Brain Injuries

I chose a cog to represent cognitive limitations and traumatic brain injuries.  Cogs are often symbols of the brain where as cogs that don't quite fit together or slip occasionally can represent brain injuries.  


Blind and Low Vision

A service dog represents people with low vision and blindness.  Service dogs are used most often by people who are blind but are also useful for other people with physical limitations which limit some of their physical movements.  Dogs can accomplish a number of tasks including picking up items and opening doors.  


Physical and Systemic

A wheelchair wheel is the icon I used to stand for people with physical and systemic disabilities.  It represents all people with mobility challenges as well as those who may have poor motor skills.  Wheelchairs, canes, walkers are used for mobility.  Reachers, special keyboards, substitutes for a computer mouse such as a laser or a stick mounted on the forehead are are all used in conjunction with computers to allow for input. 


Deaf and Hard of Hearing

A hand showing the ASL sign for 'I love you' made sense to use for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.  Those who do not know sign language often use gestures of some kind as part of their communication.  Also utilized are hearing aids and amplification systems as well as live captioning and closed captions on multi-media.  


Learning Disabilities

Since so many of our students have learning disabilities which translate to reading difficulties, I chose an open book as that token.  Not only do people with dyslexia have a hard time reading, but also those who do not focus well, like people with ADHD .  Many people with autism require rigid structures in order to take meaning from the written word.  


My good friend  and IT colleague, Christin DeVille was kind enough to print these tokens for me on her 3D printer at home.  

tokens lit.JPG

Game in Practice 

The First Try

I first tried out this game with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) department staff meeting at UCCS.  I only had 15 minutes to work with and needed to talk about another subject in addition to the game.  I tried to devote 5 minutes to the other discussion and then start playing for 10 minutes.  I created the game in such a way that even a few minutes of play would be a learning experience.  With each roll of the dice a card is chosen and a lesson is learned.  Still, I felt nervous and rushed and the game only allows for 5 players.


There were about 40 people in attendance at round tables that seat six.  As usual in our staff meeting, the front middle table was empty and I encouraged that by putting my stuff there and standing right in front of it.  I visualized having each table volunteer someone to come and represent their table to play.  In reality, I just asked for volunteers and they were not evenly divided.  I was surprised that I didn't get a lot more volunteers.  But I got the five I needed. 


The goal of the game is to graduate from school.  After each card was drawn and read aloud, the circumstance presented forces the player to move back so many spaces due to a barrier presented at the fictional Barrier University.  A small percentage of the cards have positive messages where a faculty or staff member did something to prevent a barrier and the player jumps ahead a few spaces.  If something comes up that seems unfamiliar,  

Lessons Learned

I usually added a comment to it to explain how this barrier could be avoided or how common this type of barrier is on our own campus.  Sometimes I presented an example.  I didn't realize that I would do that but it made sense at the time and it added to the lessons.  The game was easy to learn and flowed well.  Most of the comments I heard about the game were that it made people realize how a little thing that might be inconvenient for an able-bodied person could really ruin the day for a person with a disability.  Players expressed pleasure at the humorous details of the board that they recognized.    It added interest and enjoyment.  I realized I should create more cards directed at areas of improvement for OIT.  Most of my cards were only directed at faculty. 

More Lessons

After my first game play with the OIT gang, the Director of Disabilities and her assistant stopped by my office.  I hadn't put my game board away yet so I demonstrated and we played a little.  They were thrilled and wanted me to add another category for psychological disabilities.  I had considered it but didn't have enough real world examples.  They gave me a number of ideas and I was able to produce a sixth deck.  They reminded me that the psychological disabilities category was the largest in population on our campus and the one that garnered the most resistance from faculty in terms of accommodations.



A Second Play

I was scheduled to facilitate a round table at a faculty professional development event.  We played Barrier University.  Unfortunately, I only had four players since there was a number of other tables available and attendance was not good in part due to the sudden cold weather.  As a result, I sat down and played as well.  It was straightforward and most of the faculty players were very receptive.  One was incredibly enthusiastic asking if I could bring the game to their next college staff meeting.  He even thought I might be able to sell the game.  One player seemed rather resentful.  I wondered if some of the barriers were too close for comfort or if she felt it was a waste of time.  I wish I could have found a moment to ask her.  I did provide prizes to the players and we had a winner.  

Lessons Learned

I wish I had  a more formalized method of evaluating the responses to the game.  That is my weak point.  I need to allow people to express their comments via an anonymous survey of some kind.  I should have had that available.  I won't make that mistake again. 

Ruffling some feathers among faculty will not be completely avoidable, nor do I want it to be.  Awareness of barriers they create and a willingness to improve are my goals for faculty playing the game.  I also want them to feel proud of their work creating accessible classes.  They can share their methods with others at the table.   Instead of offering solutions to some of the barriers/problems encountered, I will instead ask for suggested solutions and perhaps create incentives in the game for viable ones. Dirksen reminds us that having the flow of information move in all directions brings about a better understanding.  My role should be to correct any misconceptions if they occur.  (2016, p. 52)


I continue to try to improve the look of the game and to add to the decks.  I hope to create a real commercial version and sell it at a minimal profit to other university Disability Services offices so that they can share them with the faculty.   I may even collaborate with others to make a K-12 version.  With my improvements, I hope to include an email or website to accept suggestions and comments.  



Barrier board.JPG

The Third Time is a Charm

I was able to play the game again with the Disability Services Office.  Six players tried the game and were extremely interested in the subject matter of course.  They gave me a lot of feedback. I used sticky notes so that they could put some thoughts down on what they liked or didn't like about the game and/or what they learned or expected faculty to learn.  

The consensus was that most of the learning takes place during the discussions around each barrier.  Since I have been involved in every play of the game, I am able to lead the discussions and possible resolutions.  If the game is played without an expert, written explanations might be needed to lead people to potential solutions to each barrier.  

For example, one of the Learning Disabilities cards reads "My syllabus is highly unstructured and long.  I'm on the autism spectrum and I need things to be structured and clear.  It is incoherent to me."  When this card was read, we discussed what structure really is and how faculty could be sure this doesn't happen.  We talked about one of our colleges that uses an accessible template for their syllabus.  Without experts in disability around the table, would my faculty members learn anything?  Instead of being present I could write an explanation for this card as follows:

"Many students with learning disabilities and traumatic brain injuries have a limited amount of attention, focus and processing skills to put towards deciphering a complex document.  When writing a syllabus, use a consistent style throughout with headings and well-defined sections.  Be sure that dates and details are accurate. Use clear language.  Consider numbering your pages and using a table of contents for a longer syllabus."

I learn more each time I play the game.  

sticky notes.JPG

Preaching to the Crowd

I brought Barrier University to the ATHES meeting.  ATHES is the Assistive Technology in Higher Education Society/SIG that I founded 7 years ago after it had been defunct for about 8 years.  It is associated with our regional AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) group and includes Assistive Technology Specialists in Colorado and Wyoming Institutions of Higher Learning. 

We met at CU Boulder on Friday, October 26, 2018 and played the game.  I was very glad to get feedback from my peers on this project.  It is so rare that I have a group of peers since there is only one of us at each university at most.  

Although everyone in the group is technology oriented, the game was still well received.  Some of the players actually got competitive and everyone enjoyed it.  Several took pictures of the game and want to imitate it!  I need to package it up and create a professional version so I can share it with them and their schools.  

Some of the gamers in the group were anxious to add complexities to the game like having certain landing spaces on the game bring you to another parallel path to graduation.  They had a number of creative ideas.  I have considered a few of these ideas for added interest to the game but have decided to leave the game as a simple linear path.  I want to stick with the simplicity because the game itself is not the point, its the conversation around the cards picked that matters.  I want to stay with the core idea. (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 29)

Lessons Learned

The ATHES group was very excited to play.  The biggest message/criticism I got was to include more positive outcomes on my cards.  So in addition to the common barriers, I needed to have inclusive happenings that assist the students to graduate.  They were happy I included some but wanted more.  They gave me a few examples which I will add to my decks of cards.  It was another fruitful game play for me with great feedback.  


I was also able to ask my colleagues whether they thought the barriers I included were too extreme.  Jennifer, who uses an electronic wheelchair and has low vision responded that she had encountered every one of them and more.  I was glad to hear that I wasn't off base since some of the cards can be a little upsetting.  The group responded that the cards should be upsetting and that this emotional response might help change things which is the point of playing the game.  


Dirksen, J. (2016). Design for how people learn. Berkeley: New Riders.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Made to stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. New York: Random House Books.

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