Faculty Handbook Chapter 15 - What is Universal Design

Faculty Handbook Chapter 15: What is Universal Design?

Universal Design (UD) can provide a starting point for proactively developing an inclusive model for instruction. This body of knowledge can be applied to creating courses where lectures, discussion, visual aids, videotapes, printed materials, labs, and fieldwork are accessible to all students.

UD gives each student meaningful access to the curriculum by assuring access to the environment as well as multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. It makes course content and activities accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

Instructors who follow Universal Design techniques create their curriculum, instruction, assessment and environment to be usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for accommodations. The Universal Design framework, first defined by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  1. Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  2. Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  3. Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

For more information, please visit the CAST website.

Video on Universal Design

Credit for this video goes to Seattle Central College.

Principles of Universal Design

Equitable use:

  • The design doesn't disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  • Guidelines: Provide the same means of use for and appeal to all users; avoid segregating; provide for privacy, security, and safety for all.

Flexibility in use:

  • The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Guidelines: Provide choice in methods of use and facilitate the user's accuracy and precision; assure compatibility with accommodations and adaptability to the user's pace.

Simple and intuitive use:

  • Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Guidelines: Eliminate unnecessary complexity, be consistent with user expectations and intuition, and accommodate a wide range of language skills. Arrange information in order of importance and incorporate prompts and feedback.

Perceptible information:

  • The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  • Guidelines: Incorporate a variety of modes for redundant presentation of essential information; provide contrast between essential information and its surroundings; assure compatibility with techniques and devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Tolerance for error:

  • The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Guidelines: Minimize errors through the arrangement of elements by placing the most used elements in the most accessible location and eliminating or shielding hazardous elements; include warnings and fail-safe features; discourage unconscious actions in tasks that require vigilance.

Low physical effort:

  • The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum amount of fatigue.
  • Guidelines: Allow users to maintain a neutral body position; use reasonable operating force; minimize repetitive actions and sustained physical effort.

Size and space for approach & use:

  • Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.
  • Guidelines: Provide a clear line of sight to important elements and assure comfortable reach for any seated or standing user; accommodate variations in hand and grip size; provide adequate space for assistive devices and personal assistance.

A community of learners:

  • The instructional environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty.

Instructional climate:

  • Instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive. High expectations are espoused for all students.

*This information provided by University of Washington DO-IT program; guidelines provided by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina University.

Universal Design Instructional Methods

Here are some strategies to help faculty incorporate Universal Design (UD) in the classroom:

Lecture requires sustained concentration, retention of information, fluency in spoken language, and note-taking.

  • UD strategies are to create and post detailed notes on an accessible website, provide periodic breaks during long sessions, provide adequate space and lighting for interpreters/transcribers, and allow time for questioning and clarification throughout presentation.

Written exercises require reading, writing, access to print formats, and English language fluency.

  • UD strategies suggest to present written exercises as group work OR allow for the use of assistive technology, reader, scribe, or a dictated response; use at least 18-point font (Arial, Tahoma) on solid background using simple, intuitive language.

Group work often requires substantial, appropriate physical space, use of printed materials, sustained concentration; interpersonal, communication and writing skills; it may spark anxiety issues.

  • UD strategies are to design group roles to ensure that individual differences are naturally mediated through distribution of responsibilities; minimize the amount of printed materials and assure accessible formats when necessary; design physical space to minimize noise level and distraction; provide periodic breaks.

Discussion requires English language fluency and use of auditory information. It may require note-taking, sustained concentration, and use of visual information. It may also compromise effectiveness of accommodations (sign language interpreters/transcribers) and spark anxiety issues. The space may have inadequate acoustics.

  • UD strategies suggest to provide adequate space and lighting; provide options for participation, such as note cards; summarize key points; design seating arrangements that provide face-to-face contact for all participants; ensure appropriate acoustic environment.

PowerPoint and overhead presentations require use of visual information (clarity, color, size, and density of slides), and lighting may be an issue.

  • UD strategies are to create slides with a solid background (light text on dark background), use at least a 24-point font (Arial, Tahoma), describe slides orally, limit the number of slides, allow adequate time for the audience to read each slide, and use software to post accessible PowerPoint slides to an accessible website.

Video/films require use of auditory and visual information, and lighting may be an issue.

  • UD strategies ensure videos are captioned; prepare a disk of descriptive narration or transcript for ready availability of alternate format.

Activities often require substantial physical movement, use of auditory and visual information, and English language fluency. They may spark anxiety issues, compromise the effectiveness of accommodations (sign language interpreters/transcribers), and prevent adequate control of physical environment (noise, space, lighting).

  • UD strategies suggest to carefully plan and consider the value of the activity due to the wide range of issues and individual differences of participants and consider options to accomplish the same goals. If you choose to use an activity, ensure that you plan necessary supports to allow for ease of movement and communication. Practice variations of the activity with users or a CAR accommodation specialist to evaluate inclusiveness.

Tips for Creating Course Materials

As a reminder, not all students with disabilities reach out to our office for assistance. Therefore, it is important to adhere to the following guidelines when preparing learning materials for class.

  • Font should be 12-point (or larger) and easy to read. Fonts from the sans-serif family (specifically Arial) are preferred.
  • Avoid using green or red text.
  • Avoid using “all caps” or italics when possible.
  • Students using screen readers have difficulty using this technology if text jumps around too much on the page (textboxes, cartoons, thought bubbles, etc.)
  • Accessibility statements must be included in the syllabus for each course per the COPPS Disabilities: Accessibility Statements for Students and Community Procedure
  • Headings, a feature in MS Word, should be used. This format is the most effective and provides the highest quality translation for students using screen readers.

Please make your book selections, compiled course packs, and syllabi available in a timely manner. Students who are blind or visually impaired or have learning disabilities affecting their reading rates and comprehension require printed materials that are transformed into alternate formats. Conversion of text into a spoken format or Braille can be a time-consuming process. Your syllabus is required to determine the extent to which each text will be used and the order in which reading assignments will be completed. Some students will rely on having printed material scanned and saved in computer format that can be listened to using voice output software. If you are collating various journal articles and portions of books into a course pack please use original copies or a copy that is as clean as possible. Creating course packs using second, third, and fourth generation copies of material (copies made from copies, etc.) may cause images of text that are fuzzy. Such blurring often makes it impossible for character recognition software to decipher images as readable text.

Accessibility Statements

Please use these statements as indicated in COPPS:

The purpose of these statements is to provide effective methods for communicating information to the college community about the Center for Accessible Resources, accommodations, and access to Lane's campuses, programs, and websites. These statements encourage students and community members to speak up about disability issues without being asked (which can violate their privacy).

There are 3 types of statements:

  • Syllabus Access Statement
  • Publication Access Statement
  • Event Access Statement


The NCDAE Cheatsheets webpage for Microsoft Office, Adobe, etc. is a great place to start for beginners. The WebAIM Introduction to Web Accessibility webpage and accompanying WebAIM Articles webpage that detail Word, PDF, form/survey accessibility, etc. are probably the most effective resources out there. WebAIM Accessibility Principles webpage and WCAG 2.0 Checklist webpage are great for accessibility testing.

For additional information, please visit the following websites:

Online Content

Instructors of online courses must determine how to best deliver content in a way that helps their students achieve the learning outcomes. There are many things that faculty can do to ensure that their online platforms are accessible for all students:

Moodle and MyLab Math

Moodle and MyLab Math’s philosophy incorporates Universal Design into their developments and attempts to make the platform user friendly for all regardless of ability. Learn more about this on their websites:

Personal and Other Websites

When choosing or creating a website for a course, it is important to consider accessibility. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Follow Best Accessibility Practices:
    • Anytime a course contains a video, proactively include transcripts and captioning. This allows students of all learning types to have access.
    • Offer multiple formats for complex information. Information can be represented in text, charts, graphs, etc.
  • Conduct Accessibility Testing:
    • The Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) allows instructors to test webpages to determine how accessible they are and identifies areas that need improvement. Instructors can check a site by uploading the URL and then WAVE automatically scans the site for various accessibility features.

Visit the WAVE website to find out more.

For more information, refer to our handout: PDF: Accessibility Responsibilities

Field Work and Field Trips

Many classes will involve field work/trips for students. Some students many have disabilities that affect their participation in these events (mobility, hearing, vision, etc.). When planning field work/trips, try to think about the accessibility of these trips, including building access. Faculty are always welcome to check with CAR if they have questions regarding field accessibility.

For more information, refer to our handout: PDF: Tips for Field Trips.