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Why Universal Design

When designers apply universal design principles, their products and services meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Designing any product or service 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" 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." Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess. By developing an accessible product or service, the need for adaptations at a later time can be minimized or eliminated.

Making a product or service accessible to people with disabilities can also benefit others. For example, sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are today more often used by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts. If television displays in airports and restaurants were captioned, they would benefit people who cannot hear the audio because of a noisy environment as well as those who are deaf.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University indicates that our society is not one large group of people with similar characteristics, but rather, many small groups which together make up our population. It can be cost-effective to design products and services so that they are accessible to people with a broad range of characteristics. When products and services are designed to be used only by the able-bodied population with "average" characteristics, the need for special adaptations and products for people with disabilities is maximized.

Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services, including education. Universal design of instruction is defined as follows:

"In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials—they are not added on after-the-fact." (Research Connections, Number 5, Fall 1999, p. 2, Council for Exceptional Children.)

When designing classroom instruction or a distance learning class, faculty should strive to create a learning environment that allows all students, including a person who happens to have a characteristic that is termed "disability," to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Universal design principles can apply to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, Web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Check Your Understanding
When universal design principles are applied to products and services, many users benefit. Which of the following are examples of universal instructional design that can benefit all students? Choose a response.

  1. Providing electronic lecture outlines and course handouts.

  2. Captioning videotapes.

  3. Creating accessible Web sites.

  4. Providing sign language interpreters.

  5. Verifying wheelchair accessibility for fieldwork or field trip sites.