Universal Design of Instruction

The following sample presentation may be helpful as you prepare to deliver preservice or inservice instruction regarding universal design. Consider including this content along with other diversity issues related to gender and ethnicity.


After completion of this lesson, participants will be able to


Approximately 60 minutes.


Department chair, educators, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has experience working with students with disabilities. This presentation may be presented by, or co-presented with, a staff member of the unit responsible for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities.


Equipment and Tools

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handouts.
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Discuss universal design principles and examples.
  5. Introduce and play video as noted in the script.
  6. Discuss universal design of instruction examples and contrast with the provision of accommodations.
  7. Discuss case study (optional).
  8. Conduct hands-on activities (optional).
  9. Discuss department or institution issues.
  10. Note institution resources.
  11. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult

Sample Script

Today we will be discussing principles of universal design of instruction and how to apply these principles for the benefit of all students, including those with disabilities.

The objectives of today's presentation are to

Diversity in Postsecondary Institutions

[Distribute handouts Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.]

In our schools today, we serve a diverse student body. Students in your classes come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. There are many types of learning styles and strengths represented, including students who are primarily visual or auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are being included in regular classrooms and programs once only available to students without disabilities. Their disabilities may include spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric impairments, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS.

You and your students share the goal of learning in your classroom. But how can you design instruction to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design can provide a starting point for developing a model for inclusive instruction. This body of knowledge can then be applied to instructional design and help you create courses in which lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, and group work are accessible to all students.

Universal Design

Designing any lesson or activity involves the consideration of factors that may include learning objectives, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. One issue that designers often overlook is that of universal design. Universal design is defined 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" (Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University). Universal design was first applied by architects to provide guidance in the design of environments.

Let's discuss the meaning and an example of each principle as provided in your handout Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples.

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: A professor's website is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Example: A museum, visited as a field trip for a course, allows each student to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.
  3. 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. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Example: Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.
  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. Example: A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- or right-handed and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position.

When designers apply these principles, products and environments meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess. For example, one person could be five feet four inches tall, female, forty years old, a poor reader, and deaf. All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered in developing a product she might use.

Making a product or environment accessible to people with disabilities often benefits 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. When television displays in noisy airports and restaurants are captioned, they benefit people without disabilities as well as those who are deaf.

[Discuss examples of things you would consider if you were designing a product or environment that would be universally accessible.]

Universal Design of Instruction

Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services. In the case of classroom instruction or a distance learning class, a goal should be to create a learning environment that allows all students, including a student who happens to have a characteristic that is termed a disability, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. This topic is summarized in your handout Universal Design of Instruction: Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples.

In the short video that we will now watch, you will see examples of the application of universal design principles to instruction, both in typical classroom settings and in tutoring and learning centers. The video itself is universally designed, including open captions and audio descriptions for viewers with hearing and visual impairments, respectively. Your handouts summarize the content of the video.

As demonstrated in the video and handouts, considering universal design principles can lead us to a list of guidelines that can be applied as you develop lessons and courses. They can be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, tutoring, and other academic activities. When universal design principles are applied to the design of web pages, people using a wide range of adaptive technology can access them. For example, people who are blind often use speech output systems to access computers. These systems read aloud text that is presented on the screen; they do not read graphical images. Therefore, to provide access to websites for students who are blind, we must be sure to include text descriptions for content presented in graphical form, such as pictures, animated images, and image maps.

Let's create a list of examples of how principles of universal design apply to classroom instruction. What are some of the diverse characteristics your students might have?

What are some examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design and make your course content accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, language skills, and learning styles? [Refer to checklist in handout Universal Design of Instruction: Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples.]

Discuss examples in these areas:
[Encourage discussion. Consider English as a second language, different cultures, blindness, no use of hands, etc.]

  1. Class Climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  2. Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work for which learners must support each other and that places a high value on different skills and roles.
  3. Physical Environments and Products. Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Examples: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users; label safety equipment simply, in large print, and in a location viewable from a variety of angles; repeat printed directions orally.
  4. Delivery Methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content and motivate and engage students—consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, fieldwork, etc.
  5. Information Resources and Technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible to all students. Example: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the class begins and to allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books on tape.
  6. Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Example: Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due.
  7. Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Assess group and cooperative performance as well as individual achievement.
  8. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. Example: Know how to get materials in alternate formats, reschedule classroom locations, and arrange for other accommodations for students with disabilities.

[Encourage participation and make a list together of examples. This activity could be conducted in small groups, followed by group discussion.]

Now, let's summarize how you might employ universal design principles to make specific classroom activities accessible to all students. Consider the following activities:

[Encourage discussion and sharing of examples.]

Universal Design vs. Accommodations

Does employing universal design principles in instruction eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities? In a word, no. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, using universal design principles in course planning will ensure greater access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible format as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a student who is blind enrolls in the class. Planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run.

Preserving Educational Standards

An instructor can preserve academic instructional integrity when employing universal design principles or when providing instructional accommodations for students with disabilities. Course content and evaluation standards are the purview of the instructor. Disability-related accommodations should not substantially alter instructional content or performance standards. To ensure that the same content is presented to every student in the class, it is helpful to distinguish the academic content from the instructional methods used to deliver the information.

When instructional objectives and academic content are separated from the method of instructional delivery, it is easier for the instructor to think about how to provide the information in a variety of modalities, which may benefit the entire class. The goal is to modify the methods and procedures for a student with a disability while preserving the educational content and standards of the course.

For example, testing objectives and content should be considered separately from testing method. Tests should be designed to measure the level of mastery in a subject area. For a student with a disability, you may need to use an alternate method that tests for the same level of mastery as is used for other students. In other words, change the testing procedure to evaluate mastery of the same content as that expected of other students. To fail the student who knows the content but has difficulty with a type of testing methodology because of his disability is as unfair as passing a student who does not know the material.

Benefits to All Students

Universal design of instruction can benefit all students. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to students who are deaf, is also beneficial to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to students watching the video in a noisy environment. Delivering content with multiple modes of presentation can benefit students with a variety of backgrounds and learning styles.

Case Study

[Consider having participants discuss a case study. Choose from the Student Abilities Profiles included in the Accommodation Strategies section of this notebook on pages 45-70 or from the AccessSTEM Knowledge Base at http://www.uw.edu/doit/Stem/kb.html. Also ask participants to give examples from their classes.]

Hands-On Activities (optional)

[Following are three activities adapted from the Washington MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement) curriculum. Consider using one or more of these activities to allow participants to practice developing accommodation and universal design strategies. Keep in mind that it is not necessary for participants to complete each activity in its entirety. The activities are meant to facilitate discussion about universal design and academic accommodation concepts. In each activity, the groups should be assigned a specific disability to consider while completing the activity. Handouts for each activity are provided at the end of this section on pages 179-185.]

For this activity you will work in groups and consider how the activities could be modified with universal design concepts to provide better access for all students, as well as appropriate academic accommodations for students with learning disabilities, mobility impairments, and sensory impairments.

As you complete the activity, your group should answer the following questions.

[Allow 10 minutes for the activity.]

I would like each group to report their ideas. Notice that similar accommodations might be necessary for students with different disabilities. Tell us what accommodation strategies might be provided for each activity. How could the principles of universal design be applied to this activity to make it more accessible to students with a wide variety of characteristics and thereby minimize the need for accommodations? [Record accommodations on a flip chart or board. Refer to the summary of accommodations provided for each activity.]

Activity One: Classifying Fingerprints (Modified from Washington MESA Classifying Fingerprints curriculum)

Activity: Participants experiment with fingerprint-making and analysis methods to increase their understanding of fingerprint characteristics and patterns.

Handout: Classifying Fingerprints

Supplies needed:


Visual Impairments

Hearing Impairments

Mobility Impairments

Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders

Activity Two: M&M Ratios (Modified from Washington MESA In the Pharmacy curriculum)

Activity: Participants increase their understanding of ratios and learn sorting and tabulating skills.

Handout: M&M Ratios

Supplies needed:


Visual Impairments

Hearing Impairments

Mobility Impairments

Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders

Activity Three: Surface Area and Volume (Modified from Washington MESA Packaging and the Environment curriculum)

Activity: Participants use math manipulatives to increase their understanding of the relationship between surface area and volume.

Handout: Surface Area and Volume

Supplies needed:


Visual Impairments

Hearing Impairments

Mobility Impairments

Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders


Employing universal design principles in everything we do provides information and access for all individuals regardless of learning style, language, or ability.

[Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.]


For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit the AccessSTEM website at http://www.uw.edu/doit/Stem/. This resource was developed at the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics educators and employers so that they can make their courses, programs, and worksites accessible to everyone. Another online resource is the Center for Universal Design in Education at http://www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/. [Arrange to provide links from your campus' department website before the presentation.] Consider linking to these websites from your department's website.

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.