Universal Design

Universal Design

Universal Design (also called Universal Design for Instruction, Universal Design for Learning, and Universal Course Design) considers the needs of the broadest possible range of students from the beginning.

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 and
  3. Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

What is Universal Design for Instruction?

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

Universal Design reframes the concept of accessibility from "special features for a few" to good design throughout the lifespan. UDI 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.

Principles of Universal Design for Instruction

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 the 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; 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 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 methodologies

Here are some strategies to help faculty with challenges 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/captioners, allow time for questioning and clarification throughout presentation.

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

  • UD strategies present written exercises as group work OR allow for the use of assistive technology, reader, scribe, or a dictated response; and 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; and 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, and provide periodic breaks.

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

  • UD strategies 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; and 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; may spark anxiety issues, compromise the effectiveness of accommodations (sign language interpreters/captioners), and prevent adequate control of physical environment (noise, space, lighting).

  • UD strategies 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 user or D.R. staff member to evaluate inclusiveness.

More resources:

Web Accessibility Guidelines - A helpful resource for making sure all students can easily use your web resources.

Universal Design for Instruction—by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., (adapted from the publication Universal Design for Instruction: Definition, Principles, and Examples).

Universal Design Education Online—Website to facilitate the study and teaching of Universal Design, sponsored jointly by the Center for Universal Design at N.C. State University, the IDEA Center at the University at Buffalo and the Global Universal Design Educator's Network.

UW DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology)—Site for an international center at the University of Washington, dedicated to increased success in careers and education for people with disabilities, and the promotion of accessible technology and Universal Design.

UW DO-IT Faculty Room— Universal Design resources for higher education faculty, staff, trainers and administrators.

UW DO-IT Definitions, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples—Informational resource on Universal Design outlining guiding principles.

UDL On Campus—Information on implementing Unicersal Design principles in all aspects of courses.

UDI Online—Applying Universal Design for Instruction to Online and Blended Courses

Qualified Hardware Universal Design Resources—Informational resources about Universal Design with a focus on building design.

American with Disabilities Act and Web Accessibility for Video —Article on evolving definition of auxiliary aids and services pertaining to the internet and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Center for Accessible Resources logo