Research Questions

Research Questions

Overview of Research

The term universal design (UD) refers to the practice of designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest range of characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess; others to consider include age, gender, professional position, reading level, learning style, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

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" ( It is desirable that environments, products, and services be directly usable without add-on technologies. If this is not possible, then they should be made usable with popular assistive technologies.

With the goal of providing guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design. They are listed below, along with examples of design guidelines for applying each principle.

Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

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.

Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended action.

Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

Universal Design in Education

[Picture of students in a computer lab.]

Originally applied in the field of architecture, universal design has more recently emerged as a paradigm for education (e.g., Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Burgstahler, 2005d; Conuell, et al., 1997; DO-IT, 2003). While traditional design focuses on the average user and accessible design focuses on people with disabilities, universal design in education (UDE) promotes an expanded view of making educational products and environments useful to people with a wider range of characteristics that include those related to gender, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, ability, disability, and learning style (Bowe, 2000). It provides a philosophical framework for the design of a broad range of educational products and environments, including websites, educational software, instruction, and student services.

Examples of the seven principles of universal design applied in educational settings are listed below.

Application of universal design to instruction gives each student meaningful access to the course curriculum and instructional activities, adding a new dimension to accepted principles of good teaching. It can be applied in classroom instruction, in web-based distance learning, and within campus tutoring centers (Burgstahler, 2002, 2005c, 2005d; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2005; Mason & Orkwis, 2005; McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2003; Orkwis, 2003; Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005; Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998).

Few published articles have focused on accessible or universal design of student services (e.g., Kroeger, 1993; Uzes & Connelly, 2003; Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2003). However, DO-IT at the University of Washington, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, has worked with more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide to develop training materials for and deliver training to postsecondary student services organizations (DO-IT, n.d.; DO-IT, 2003). The Student Services Conference Room at provides a self-paced learning environment for student administrators and staff and a collection of train-the-trainer printed and video materials to use for on-site and online training.

Implications for Practice

The field of universal design can provide a framework for developing facilities, services, and information resources that are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. This approach will minimize the need for specific accommodations and also benefit older adults, students for whom English is not their first language, and those using older technology.

Those presenting professional development programs to staff can also apply universal design principles to maximize learning and to model universal design principles that participants can apply in their own service areas. For example, use multiple modes of delivery and adjust to the needs and interests of your participants. Use videos with captions. Demonstrate how you can verbalize the content of projected materials and verbally describe graphs and cartoons so that they are accessible to people who cannot see them. Host presentations in facilities that are wheelchair-accessible.

Help participants learn to apply universal design to service development and improvement efforts. Use the checklists within the handouts included in this notebook to make student services accessible to students with disabilities. They are tailored to specific services such as libraries, tutoring and learning centers, registration, computer labs, and career centers. Several videos include powerful demonstrations of key concepts.

Customize your training options for specific audiences. Provide alternatives such as short and long presentations, interactive computer-based instruction, printed materials, and web resources.


Universal design maximizes access to facilities, programs, and resources and minimizes the need to provide individual accommodations for students with disabilities. Applying universal design principles in your presentation not only meets the accessibility needs for those attending but also models how accessible instruction can be delivered.