Universal Design

Most faculty and staff members consider accessibility issues only after students with disabilities enroll in their courses or attempt to access their services. They provide accommodations in response to the needs of a specific student with a disability, perhaps with assistance from a campus disability services office. A more proactive approach to making courses and services welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by, everyone including students with disabilities, is called "universal design." Universal design (UD) is an intentional process where access to students with disabilities is considered routinely as instruction and campus services are designed.

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "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." Courses, services, and information resources developed when universal design principles are applied and are accessible to people with a wide variety of characteristics, including those related to gender, race/ethnicity, age, native language, and level of ability to see, hear, move and speak. Curbcuts are an example of universal design. Although they were developed for wheelchair-users they are more often used by parents with baby carriages, travelers with wheeled luggage, and service delivery staff with rolling carts. Universal design is good design.

UD principles can be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web pages, science labs, fieldwork, campus services, and information resources. Universal design allows for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. When faculty and staff consider the wide range of characteristics of potential students, they make course content, student services offices, and campus-sponsored activities more accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic/racial backgrounds, ages, language skills, and learning styles. UD can be applied to instruction, student service, IT and physical space. Specific areas of application are listed in the image below. 

Examples of applications of principles of UD can be found in the following sections of the Access College website designed for specific stakeholders.

Universal design benefits people other than those who have disabilities. Making syllabi, short assignment sheets, reading lists, student resources available on an accessible website benefits all students, not just those who use text-to-speech computer systems because they are blind. Enunciating clearly and facing the class when speaking benefits everyone, not just those who read lips. Using clear and simple language in well-organized publications and websites benefits everyone, not just students with learning disabilities. Captions on video presentations benefit individuals whose native language is not English and who are in a noiseless or noisy environments, not just people who are deaf.

Universal design minimizes, but does not eliminate, the need for accommodations. Both proactive and reactive approaches are needed in order to maximize the inclusion of students with disabilities in college courses and services. Promoting universal design as well as providing accommodations is

  • cost-effective
  • sends a clear message that all students are equally important
  • makes courses and services more accessible to everyone

Such an approach requires clear direction from high level administrators and effective communication between faculty, students, and the disabled student services office. It should be reflected in policy throughout the institution.

The Process of Universal Design

Universal design is a process that requires taking a macro view of the application being considered as well as a micro view of subparts of the application. The following process can be used to apply universal design to any campus course, information resource, service, or other offering:

  1. Identify the application. Specify the product or environment to which you wish to apply universal design.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population (e.g., users of service). and then describe the diverse characteristics of potential member sof the population for which the application is designed (e.g., students, faculty, and staff with diverse characteristics with respect to gender; age; size; ethnicity and race; native language; learning style; and abilities to see, hear, manipulate objects, read, and communicate).
  3. Involve consumers. Consider and involve people with diverse characteristics (as identified in Step 2) in all phases of development, implementation, and evaluation of the application. Also gain perspectives through diversity programs and student services, such as the campus disability services office.
  4. Adopt guidelines or standards. Create or select existing universal design guidelines or standards. Integrate them with other best practices within the field of specific application. 
  5. Apply guidelines or standards. Apply universal design in concert with best practices within the field, as identified in Step 4, to the overall design of the application, all subcomponents of the application, and all ongoing operations (e.g., procurement processes, staff training) to maximize the benefit of the application to individuals with the wide variety of characteristics identified in Step 2.
  6. Plan for accommodations. Develop processes to address accommodation requests(e.g., purchase of assistive technology, arrangement for sign language interpreters) from individuals for whom the design of the application does not automatically provide access. Make these processes known through appropriate signage, publications, and websites.
  7. Train and support. Tailor and deliver ongoing training and support to stakeholders(e.g., instructors, computer support staff, procurement officers, volunteers). Share institutional goals with respect to diversity and inclusion practices for ensuring welcoming, accessible, and inclusive experiences for everyone.
  8. Evaluate. Include universal design measures in periodic evaluations of the application; evaluate the application with a diverse group of users; and make modifications based on feedback. Provide ways to collect input from users (e.g., through online and printed instruments and communications with staff).