October 17, 2020

Women's Flat Track Roller Derby: Universal by Design

Xtreme Regime's Margolodon Shark, Naughty Ninja and Anakin Skyblocker on defense. Photo by Keith Ridge 2018.

True inclusion happens by intentional design, not by happenstance or luck. From it's inception, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) set out to be inclusive. It has anti-racist policies as an organization and is inclusive of different gender identities. In fact, any person who does not actively identify as a male is able to compete under the WFTDA rule set.

I was writing a book study for Katie Novak's book "Let Them Thrive: A Playbook for Helping Your Child Succeed in School and Life" and reexamining the underpinnings of Universal Design for Learning when I had an epiphany. Roller Derby is like a case study in real world universal design! In Chapter 6 the author talks about environments that feel inclusive because UDL is in action - her school track team and even yoga. This in particular made me think about roller derby. Roller derby has taken off all over the world, and part of the reason is the feeling of inclusion. After all, everyone likes to feel included, don't they?

I joined roller derby in my mid thirties. I was looking for a place to be active, involved and feel like part of a team. On the team that I play for, Gold Coast Derby Grrls, there are people varied in age from 19 years old up through their fifties. There are entire roller derby teams and social media groups dedicated to those who play over the age of 40! The team I play for has athletes that teach fitness,  lawyers, a Director of Leadership Development for a Multi-billion dollar software company, a police officer, hair stylists, teachers, healthcare workers, graphic designers - you name it! People of different sizes, shapes, and even gender identities. Roller derby teams have some of the greatest diversity I've ever experienced in one place. When you are immersed in the variations, this confirms the idea that there is no such thing as average and creates an environment that is presumptively inclusive.

Aside from the obvious variability within the league members, let's talk more about the UDL Principles. Practices are offered (or were pre-pandemic) 3 days per week; two week days with evening practices and one weekend morning practice to meet the needs of everyone's differing lifestyles. Some practices are indoors, while others are outdoors. This variability in practice days and times speaks to Multiple Means of Representation. There is flexibility in when and how team members practice. 

Everyone warms up on the track together to build team spirit and help the league members to feel like part of the team.  This demonstrates the principle Multiple Means of Engagement. This sense of team building and socializing helps members to sustain effort and persistence. Then the team splits into different groups. Some skaters are working on learning how to roller skate on quads; how to fall, how to stop, and how to transition.  While others who have mastered the basics of skating work on derby specific skills including hitting, blocking and jamming strategies.  Everyone progresses at their own pace, which speaks to UDL checkpoint 7.3: minimizing threats and distractions. 

And finally, let’s examine how roller derby embodies Multiple Means of Action and Expression. For those who are super competitive, there's a charter travel team that travels around the country to play. For those who like to play the game but aren't as competitive, or life circumstances don't allow for extensive travel, there is a 'B' team that plays other teams in state. Still others may choose not to skate and instead to volunteer or officiate either on or off skates. There's ways to 'personalize' the derby experience all over the place. While some of my closest teammates are on the charter 'A' team, I played on the 'B' team. We socialized after practice regardless of role in the organization or ability level.  This is the magic of UDL in action; the feeling of belonging and personalizing your learning experience.  

Roller Derby non-skating officials and skating officials after a bout.
Photo by Eric Vicaria Photography

You can learn more in this local story from Spectrum News in Pasco County, Florida or watch and reach more about the inclusive nature of roller derby in this story from Canada. What other examples of inclusion and universal design do you notice all around you?

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