Universal Design

Image of students with in an accessible science lab

Students on postsecondary campuses come from a variety of backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. On most campuses, there are students with many types of learning styles, including those who are primarily visual and auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are pursuing postsecondary education. Their disabilities include 

  • Blindness
  • Low vision
  • Hearing impairments
  • Mobility impairments
  • Learning disabilities
  • Health impairments
  • Psychiatric impairments

Besides academic courses, students need access to campus services just like everyone else. These include libraries; admissions and registration; housing and residential life; tutoring centers; career centers and advising, counseling, and career centers. But how can these offices ensure that their facilities, information services, and services are accessible to everyone? The field of universal design can provide a starting point for discussion of accessible design. This body of knowledge can then be applied so that campus services staff can create accessible services where printed materials, web resources, technology, campus events, and facilities are accessible to all students.

Introduction to Universal Design

Designing any product or environment 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 (UD)" is, according to the Center for Universal Design, "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." 

UD is an approach to designing the environment, products, and services that takes into consideration the variability in abilities and disabilities of the student body. Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, an accessible environment, information resource, or service is created from the beginning. It meets 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 when developing a product or service she might use.

Making facilities, information resources, and services 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 video displays in airports and restaurants are captioned, they benefit people who cannot hear the audio because of a noisy environment as well as those who are deaf.

At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. The principle of universal design are listed below along with an example of an application in an educational setting for each.

  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 students who are blind and using text-to-speech software, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a campus museum that allows a visitor 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. A navigation screen for an online registration system that is accessible to a visitor who is blind and using text-to-speech software 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 being employed is when multimedia projected in a noisy student union facility includes captioning.
  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 an educational software program that provides guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low Physical Effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with minimal fatigue. For example, 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 study area with adjustable tables designed for use by students with a wide variety of physical characteristics and abilities is an example of employing this principle.

For more general information regarding applications of universal design in educational settings, consult:

Universal Design of Student Services

Image of a student using computers in a neurobiology lab

UD principles can be applied to many products and environments. When designing your campus service, strive to create an environment that allows all students, including a person who happens to have a characteristic that is termed "disability," to access the information and services provided. Employing UD principles minimize but does not eliminate the need for accommodations. There will always be a need for some accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts will ensure full access to services and information for most students and minimize the need for accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible format as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student uses the information; planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run.

For a checklist that can be used to help design accessible student services consult the DO-IT publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services.

Check Your Understanding

Employing UD principles to fully include one group of students can generate unanticipated benefits to others. Select from the list below those students who might benefit from captioning of videos.

  1. Students for whom English is a second language
  2. Students who are deaf
  3. Students with visual impairments
  4. Students in a noisy environment
  5. Students who have learning disabilities


  1. Students for whom English is a second language
    Yes, captioning can benefit students for whom English is a second language. Often their reading skills are better than their spoken English skills.
  2. Students who are deaf
    Yes, captioning provides access to deaf students.
  3. Students with visual impairments
    Captioning is generally not useful for students with visual impairments, but there is one exception: students who are deaf and have low vision (i. e., they can see large print) can benefit from captioning if the captions are large enough for them to see.
  4. Students watching the video in a noisy environment
    Students in a noisy environment will benefit from captioning. Students who have learning disabilities Some students with learning disabilities comprehend material better when they both see text and hear it spoken aloud. They benefit when videos are captioned.
  5. Students who have learning disabilities
    Some students with learning disabilities comprehend material better when they both see text and hear it spoken aloud. They benefit when videos are captioned.

The Process of Universal Design

Principles of UD can be employed to make a student services operation accessible to everyone. These services include libraries, admissions and registration offices, career centers, computer labs, tutoring and learning centers, housing and food services, and student organizations. The following six steps can guide you through the process of applying universal design to a specific campus service area. 

Image of students in a botany lab
  1. Identify the service (e.g., library, career center) to which you wish to apply universal design.
  2. Define the "universe" - who will potentially use the service (e.g., campus visitors, enrolled students). Identify the potential diversity within the group of service users, including those related to gender, age, stature, ethnicity/race, native language, and abilities to see, hear, move and manipulate objects, and learn.
  3. Apply universal design and other selected design principles and standards for good practice in student service operation to the overall design of the service (e.g., determine range of options for information access).
  4. Apply universal design to the subcomponents of the service (e.g., design of the service counter).
  5. Develop processes to address the accommodation needs of specific individuals with disabilities using the service for whom the design does not automatically provide access (e.g., plan for providing sign language interpreters when requested)
  6. Test the service with users with diverse abilities, disabilities, and interests and make modifications based on this feedback.

Employing UD principles in everything we do makes a user-friendly world for all of us. It creates an accessible environment, minimizing the need to alter it for individuals with special needs. Review DO-IT's website The Center for Universal Design in Education for further information about universal design applications and processes.

Universal design strategies can be employed in designing specific campus services. Access the following sections of The Student Services Conference Room to learn more:

Q&As, Case Studies, and Promising Practices

For frequently asked questions, case studies, and promising practices, consult the Student Services Conference Room Knowledge Base


The content of this web page is from the following DO-IT publications.