Universal Design

In the classroom or the workplace, most groups are diverse. We vary in background, cultural and gender identity, first language, and age. We have different learning styles, including visual and auditory. Some of us have disabilities, including blindness, low vision, hearing impairments, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, and health impairments.

How can educators design instruction to maximize the learning of all students? How can employers create environments to maximize productivity of all employees? By using universal design.

Universal design (UD) is, according to the Center for Universal Design, "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

The seven principles of universal design established by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State can be applied to academic programs and instruction.

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. A website that is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including people who are blind, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. A museum that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of a display case employs this principle.
  3. Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Science lab equipment with control buttons that are clear and intuitive employs this principle.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Video captioning employs this principle.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. An educational software program that provides guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection employs this principle.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Doors that open automatically employ this principle.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. The design provides appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. A science lab with adjustable tables employs this principle.

Universal Design of Instruction

Universal design principles can be applied to many environments, products, and services, including learning environments and methods of instruction.

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact. (Research Connections, Number 5, Fall 1999, p. 2, Council for Exceptional Children)

When designing classroom instruction or an online class, strive to create a learning environment that allows all students, including students with disabilities, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Universal design principles can apply to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

The following are examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design. Applying these strategies can make your course content accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

  1. Inclusiveness. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  2. Physical Access. Ensure that activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Examples: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users; label safety equipment simply, in large print, and in a location viewable from a variety of angles; repeat printed directions verbally.
  3. Delivery Methods. Use a variety of accessible instructional methods. Example: Use multiple modes—e.g., lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, web-based communications, educational software, field work, etc.,--to deliver content and motivate and engage students.
  4. Information Resources. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are flexible and accessible to all students. Example: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early, to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the class begins and to allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as audio books.
  5. Interaction. Encourage effective interactions between students and between students and the instructor, and assure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work that emphasizes collaboration and that places a high value on different skills and roles.
  6. Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Example: Allow students to present portions of their work for feedback before the final project is due.
  7. Assessment. Regularly assess student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Use a variety of accessible methods and tools to assess the performance of students in collaborative groups and as individuals.
  8. Accommodation. Plan for additional accommodations to address any specific student needs. Example: Be prepared to provide materials in alternate formats, change classroom locations, or arrange for other disability accommodations.

Although employing universal design principles to instruction does not eliminate the need for special accommodations—e.g., a sign language interpreter for a deaf student—it does ensure full access to the content for most students. By applying universal design to your courses as you create them, you save time by minimizing the need to make accommodations later. For example, letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternate formats.

Universal Design of a Computing Department

AccessComputing has drafted an Accessibility Checklist to guide faculty and administrators in making their computing department more accessible. Equal Access: Universal Design of Computing Departments applies the principles of universal design.

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable AccessComputing Knowledge Base.