Universal Design

Image of students in a botany lab

Students in postsecondary classes come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. In most classes, there are students with many types of learning styles and preferences, including those who are primarily visual or auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are pursuing postsecondary education. Their disabilities include

  • Blindness
  • Low vision
  • Hearing impairments
  • Mobility impairments
  • Learning disabilities
  • Health impairments
  • Psychiatric impairments

Students want to learn and their instructors share this goal. How can instructors select their curriculum and instructional strategies to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design (UD) can provide a framework for inclusive instruction, where lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, web resources, labs, and field work are accessible to all students.

This section of The Faculty Room includes an overview of UD, applications of UD to instruction, and a process for applying UD.

Overview of Universal Design

Designing any product or environment involves the consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. Often the design is created for the "average" user. In contrast, "universal design (UD)" is, according to the Center for Universal Design (CUD), "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." Adapting the CUD definition to educational settings results in "the design of teaching and learning products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Such products and environments include physical spaces, equipment, digital tools, and online and on-site pedagogy.

UD is an approach to designing the environment, products, and services that takes into consideration the variability in abilities, disabilities and other characteristics of the student body. Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, an accessible course, information resource, or service is created from the beginning. It meets the needs of potential students with a wide variety of characteristics.

Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess. For example, one person could be five feet four inches tall, female, forty years old, a poor reader, and deaf. All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered when developing a product or service she might use.

Making facilities, information resources, and services accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. For example, curb cuts are designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to wheelchair users. Today, curb cuts are also often used by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts. When video displays in airports and restaurants are captioned, they benefit people who cannot hear the audio because of a noisy environment as well as those who are deaf.

Basic Principles that Underpin UDI

A triangle building Universal Design out of Accessible, Inclusive, and Usable.

Described in this section are three sets of principles that provide a foundation for universal design of instruction (UDI) practices: 

  • the broad principles of UD, which address all products and environments, particularly facilities and equipment used in educational sessions
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that provides guidance for curriculum and pedagogy
  • those that ensure the design of digital technology through application of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium W3C

Many researchers and practitioners either focus on only one or two sets of these principles or just create their own, but leaders and collaborators in projects hosted by the DO-IT Center have found that the combination of these three existing sets of principles ensure that all teaching and learning pedagogy, curriculum, equipment, and learning spaces are fully accessible, usable, and inclusive.

UD Principles

At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. The principle of universal design are listed below along with an example of an application in an educational setting for each.

  1. Equitable Use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. For example, a website that is designed to be accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a campus museum that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of a display case.
  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. A navigation screen for an online registration system that is accessible to a visitor who is blind and using text-to-speech software is an example of an application of this principle.
  4. Perceptible Information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. An example of this principle being employed is when multimedia projected in a noisy student union facility includes captioning.
  5. Tolerance for Error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. An example of a product applying this principle is an educational software program that provides guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low Physical Effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with minimal fatigue. For example, doors that open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics demonstrate the application of this principle.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. A study area with adjustable tables designed for use by students with a wide variety of physical characteristics and abilities is an example of employing this principle.

UDL Principles

A more specific application of UD, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), provides “a framework for designing curricula that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. UDL provides rich supports for learning and reduces barriers to the curriculum while maintaining high achievement standards for all.” UDL guidelines, developed by CAST, promote the development of curriculum that includes the following. 

  1. Multiple Means of Representation. Provide options for perception, language and symbols, and comprehension. An example of applying this principle is to offer ways to customize the display of information.
  2. Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Provide options for physical action, expression, communication, and executive functions. Varying the methods for response and navigation in a curriculum is an example of applying this principle. 
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement. Provide options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self regulation. An example of applying this principle is to maximize relevance, value and authenticity in curricular content.

Principles for Accessible Design of Digital Learning Tools

Although some leaders and collaborators in DO-IT initiatives considered the combination of UD and UDL principles adequate for addressing all teaching and learning products and environments, many saw the value of applying the principles that underpin the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) when designing digital learning opportunities. In the early years of the internet, UD practices began to be applied to the design of hardware and software to ensure accessibility to individuals with disabilities, English language learners, and other groups. These efforts led to the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. The WCAG and related practices are underpinned by four guiding principles. Together, they require IT components to be:

  1. Perceivable. Users must be able to perceive the content, regardless of the device or configuration they are using. An example of applying this principle is to provide captions on videos so that individuals who are deaf, are English language learners, or are in libraries or other quiet environments can access the content presented.
  2. Operable. Users must be able to operate the controls, buttons, sliders, menus, etc., regardless of the device they are using. This principle is applied when web developers know to provide keyboard alternatives for mouse functions so that individuals with disabilities who use assistive technology that emulates the keyboard but not the mouse can navigate the website.
  3. Understandable. Users must be able to understand the content and interface. An example of applying this principle is when unusual words are defined.
  4. Robust. Content must be coded in compliance with relevant coding standards to ensure it is accurately and meaningfully interpreted by devices, browsers, and assistive technologies. This principle is applied when web designers make sure their websites are fully operable using all web browsers and using a variety of input devices.

Applying all three sets of principles for the universal design of instruction ensures that teaching and learning content and activities are accessible to, usable by, and inclusive of everyone. 

The Process of UDI

A chart that shows the process described in the numbered list.

UDI is a goal, but also a process. An instructor can take the following steps to apply UDI to a course.

  1. Identify the course and evidence-based teaching practices. Describe the course, learning objectives, and content. Adopt overall teaching and learning philosophies (e.g., constructivism) and evidence-based practices (e.g., active learning).
  2. Consider the diverse characteristics of potential students. Describe the population of students eligible to enroll in the course and then consider their potential diverse characteristics—with respect to gender; age; ethnicity; race; native language; learning preferences; size; abilities to see, hear, walk, manipulate objects, read, speak—and the challenges they might encounter in your course.
  3. Integrate UDI with evidence-based teaching practices. Apply UDI strategies (underpinned by relevant UDHE principles) in concert with evidence-based instructional practices in the choice of teaching methods, curricula, and assessments as well as to all teaching practices and materials to maximize the learning of students with diverse characteristics.
  4. Plan for accommodations. Learn campus procedures for addressing accommodation requests (e.g., arranging for sign language interpreters) from specific students for whom the course design does not already provide full access. Include information about how students can request accommodations in the syllabus.
  5. Evaluate. Monitor the effectiveness of instruction through observation and assessments of learning and collect formative feedback from students. Make modifications based on the results. Return to step 3 if your evaluation suggests further improvements to your course should be made.

UDI Guidelines and Examples

UDI principles can be applied to any instructional product or environment. When designing on-site or online instruction, UD challenges the instructor to create a learning environment that allows all students, including those with disabilities, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Universal design principles can be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Below are examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design. They are organized under seven performance indicator categories, with a goal statement for each. 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 preferences.

  • Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  • Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students, employ multiple communication methods, and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work for which learners must engage using a variety of skills and roles.
  • Physical environments and products. For outside instruction, ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students and that diverse potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Example: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users.
  • Delivery methods. Use multiple instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students using a variety of teaching methods.
  • Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for 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 course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books in audio format.
  • Feedback and assessment. Regularly assess students’ progress, provide specific feedback on a regular basis using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due. 
  • Accommodations. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not fully met by the instructional content and practices. Example: Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities.

As represented by UDI application area 7 above, employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will ensure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations in the future. For example, designing web resources in accessible format as they are developed means that no re-development is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class; planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments in accessible formation on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternative formats.

Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction for a comprehensive list of examples of UDI strategies. View the corresponding video for an overview of UDI. Consult Universal Design of Physical Spaces for information about designing inclusive instructional spaces. For specific guidance for the delivery of online courses consult the video and publication 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.

Check Your Understanding

Employing UD principles to fully include one group of students can generate unanticipated benefits to others. Select from the list below those students who might benefit from captioning of videos.

  1. Students for whom English is a second language
  2. Students who are deaf
  3. Students with visual impairments
  4. Students in a noisy environment
  5. Students who have learning disabilities

Feedback on Responses:

  1. Students for whom English is a second language
    Yes, captioning can benefit students for whom English is a second language. Often their reading skills are better than their spoken English skills.
  2. Students who are deaf
    Yes, captioning provides access to deaf students.
  3. Students with visual impairments
    Captioning is generally not useful for students with visual impairments, but there is one exception: students who are deaf and have low vision (i. e., they can see large print) can benefit from captioning if the captions are large enough for them to see.
  4. Students watching the video in a noisy environment
    Students in a noisy environment will benefit from captioning. Students can use captions to still understand the content of a video without having to turn their volume up further or if they don't have access to headphones.
  5. Students who have learning disabilities
    Some students with learning disabilities comprehend material better when they both see text and hear it spoken aloud. They benefit when videos are captioned.

Consult Published Books and Articles About Universal Design in Higher Education (UDHE) for more information about UD, especially how it can be applied in educational settings. 

Specific Applications of UDI

Employing UD principles in everything we do makes an inclusive world for all of us. It creates an accessible environment, minimizing the need for accommodations to be made for specific individuals. 

Universal design strategies can be applied to specific instructional practices. Access the following sections of The Faculty Room to learn more:

Getting Started

Looking at all of the suggestions for applying universal design of instruction may seem overwhelming. The great thing about universal design, however, is that it can be applied incrementally. For example, a department might begin by working through an existing diversity committee or a new task force to explore ways of making the department more welcoming and accessible to everyone. For specific disciplines to use in such efforts, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of an Academic Department and Equal Access: Universal Design of Computing Departments. An individual faculty member could use the UDI Checklist to improve their teaching. Members of a task force or a faculty could use an appropriate checklist as follows:

  • As they go through the checklist cross off checklist items not applicable in their course/department 
  • Note as "done" those that have already been implemented
  • Label with a recommended deadline date for addressing the issue 

Using the online version of the checklist, they could order the items by date and add additional notes as appropriate. An instructor can then use the resulting document to guide their improvements to make more accessible. Presenting the timeline to the department decision-maker on diversity issues could be the next step in using a department checklist. Once approval is secured, assigning staff and, when needed, securing budget funds could move the project along.

Review the Applications of Universal Design for further information about UD applications and processes. Consult the following sections of The Faculty Room to learn about access challenges and solutions for students with specific types of disabilities. An accommodation provided for a student with a disability can inspire a UD strategy to offer to all students. For example, a deaf student may need a video to be captioned. this request could inspire you to caption all of your videos in the future. For examples for how accommodations that could benefit students on the autism spectrum can inspire an instructor to offer the strategy to all the students as a UDI practice to benefit all students. Consult the following article Applying Universal Design to Address the Needs of Postsecondary Students on the Autism Spectrum.


Q&As, Case Studies, and Promising Practices

For frequently asked questions, case studies, and promising practices, consult the Faculty Room Knowledge Base. Examples of articles in the Knowledge Base include Collaboration Struggles in an Engineering Lab: A Case Study About a Student with Autism and AccessCollege: A Promising Practice in Making Postsecondary Institutions Welcoming and Accessible to Students with Disabilities.

Acknowledgments and Resources

The content of this web page is from the following DO-IT publications. Consult these resources for details.