Universal Design in Postsecondary Education: Process, Principles, and Applications

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Goal, process, principles, and examples for applying UD to instruction, services, physical spaces, and technology

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Designing any product or environment involves the consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, industry standards, and cost. Typically, designers focus their attention on the average user. In contrast, universal design (UD), according to The Center for Universal Design, "is 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" (www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/about_ud/about_ud.htm).

When UD principles are applied in a postsecondary institution, educational products and environments meet the needs of potential students with a wide variety of characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that a student might possess. For example, one student could be Hispanic, six feet tall, male, thirty years old, an excellent reader, primarily a visual learner, and deaf. UD requires consideration of all characteristics of potential users, including abilities and disabilities, when developing a course or service.

UD can be applied to any product or environment. For example, a typical service counter in a career services office is not accessible to everyone, including students who are short in stature, use wheelchairs, and cannot stand for extended periods of time. Applying UD principles might result in the design of a counter that has multiple heights-the standard height designed for individuals within the typical range of height and who use the counter while standing up and a shorter height for those who are shorter than average, use a wheelchair for mobility, or prefer to interact with service staff from a seated position.

Making a product or an environment accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. For example, automatic door openers benefit students, faculty, and staff using walkers and wheelchairs, but also benefit people carrying books and holding babies, as well as elderly citizens. Sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are often used by students on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with carts. When television displays in restaurants, museums, and other public areas are captioned, programming is accessible not only to people who are deaf but also to others who cannot hear the audio in noisy areas.

UD is a goal that puts a high value on both diversity and inclusiveness. It is also a process. The following paragraphs summarize the process, principles, and applications of UD.

The Process of Universal Design

The process of UD requires a macro view of the application being considered as well as a micro view of subparts of the application. The following list suggests a process that can be used to apply UD in a postsecondary setting:

  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 members of 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 the development, implementation, and evaluation of the application. Also gain perspectives through diversity programs, 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 the 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.
  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 and 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).

Universal Design Principles

At The Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of UD to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. Following are the CUD principles of UD, each are paired with an example of its application:

  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 people who are blind, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a museum that allows visitors 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. Science lab equipment with clear and intuitive control buttons 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 is captioned television programming projected in noisy restaurants.
  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 software applications that provide guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. 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 flexible work area designed for use by employees with a variety of physical characteristics and abilities is an example of applying this principle.

Applications of UD

Listed below are some of DO-IT's resources. Videos can be viewed freely online or purchased on DVDs. Publications are provided in an accessible and camera-ready format and may be duplicated for presentations, mailings, and other noncommercial purposes. You may link to these resources by visiting The Center for Universal Design in Education at www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/.

Listed below are some of DO-IT's resources. Videos can be viewed freely online or purchased from DO-IT. Publications are provided in an accessible and camera-ready format and may be duplicated for presentations, mailings, and other noncommercial purposes. You may link to these resources by visiting The Center for Universal Design in Education at www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/.

UD of Computer Labs

Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs

UD of Distance Learning

Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning
Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone

UD of Instruction

Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction
Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, and Examples

UD of Libraries

Equal Access: Universal Design of Libraries

UD of Physical Spaces

Equal Access: Universal Design of Physical Spaces

UD of Professional Organizations, Projects, Conference Exhibits, and Presentations

Equal Access: Universal Design of Conference Exhibits and Presentations
Equal Access: Universal Design of Professional Organizations
Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Project

UD of Software

Designing Software that is Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities

UD of Student Services

Equal Access: Universal Design of Advising
Equal Access: Universal Design of Career Services
Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs
Equal Access: Universal Design of Financial Aid
Equal Access: Universal Design of Housing and Residential Life
Equal Access: Universal Design of Libraries
Equal Access: Universal Design of Recruitment and Undergraduate Admissions
Equal Access: Universal Design of Registration
Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services
Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Organizations
Equal Access: Universal Design of Tutoring and Learning Centers

UD of Technology in the Workplace

Access to Technology in the Workplace: In Our Own Words

UD of Telecommunications Products

Use of Telecommunications Products by People with Disabilities

UD as a Topic of Instruction

Universal Design of Web Pages in Class Projects

UD of Video and Multimedia

Creating Video and Multimedia Products that are Accessible to People with Sensory Impairments

UD of Websites

Universal Design of Web Pages in Class Projects
World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design

Additional Resources

For more information about applications of universal design consult www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.html or The Center for Universal Design in Education at www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/. The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice published by Harvard Education Press shares perspectives of UD leaders nationwide. To receive a 20% discount, visit www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html.

Applications of Universal Design in Postsecondary Education

Instruction

Services

Information Technology

Spaces

Examples of Universal Design in Postsecondary Education

Universal design in postsecondary education:

Examples of Universal Design in Postsecondary Education

In Instruction

In Services

In Information Technology

In Physical Spaces

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

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This publication was adapted from Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications by Sheryl Burgstahler at www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Programs/ud.html. The Center for Universal Design in Education as well as the contents of this publication were developed under a grant from the Department of Education, #P333A050064. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

Copyright © 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.