Lesson 03: Universal Design

Serving Students with Disabilities
Distance Learning Course


The purpose of this lesson is to increase your awareness of principles of UNIVERSAL DESIGN and their application in your office.

By sharing and discussing ideas with other participants, you will develop an awareness of additional strategies and applications of the principles of UNIVERSAL DESIGN.

Question to REFLECT upon while reading the CONTENT

In what ways might your office apply UNIVERSAL DESIGN principles?


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."

When universal design principles are applied, the resulting environment, products, and services 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 when developing a product, environment, or service she might use.

Making a product, environment, or service 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 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.

PRINCIPLES of Universal Design At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established the following set of PRINCIPLES of UNIVERSAL DESIGN (see http://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm) to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products. They can also be applied to academic programs and instruction.

  1. EQUITABLE USE. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. For example, a webssite that is designed so that it is 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 a visitor to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of a display case.
  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. Equipment with control buttons that are clear and intuitive is a good 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 not being employed is when television programming is projected without captioning in noisy public areas like conference exhibits.
  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 a software program that provides 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. For example, doors that are easy to open by 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 are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. A work area designed for use by students with a wide variety of physical characteristics and abilities is an example of employing this principle.

UNIVERSAL DESIGN applied to EDUCATION Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services.

Below are examples of METHODS that employ principles of universal design. Applying these strategies can make your program content accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

  1. INCLUSIVENESS. Create an environment that respects and values diversity. Put a statement on your print or web-based materials inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other needs. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any student. Respect the privacy of all students.
  2. PHYSICAL ACCESS. Assure that the reception area, meeting rooms, and other office spaces are accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities. Make sure equipment and activities minimize sustained physical effort, provide options for operation, and accommodate right- and left-handed students and those with limited physical abilities. Assure the safety of all students.
  3. WEB PAGES. Provide printed materials in electronic format. Create printed and web-based materials in simple, intuitive, and consistent formats. Provide text descriptions of graphics presented on web pages. Arrange content in order of importance.

Employing universal design principles DOES NOT ELIMINATE the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts will assure full access to the content for most students and MINIMIZE the need for specific accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student requests access to the materials; planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run.


Employing universal design principles to fully include one group of students can generate unanticipated benefits to others. Consider this list of students who might benefit from CAPTIONING on your program videos.

* Students for whom English is a second language. Often their reading skills are better than their spoken English skills.

* Students who are deaf or hard of hearing. By reading what they cannot hear, captioning provides access to students who are deaf.

* 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.

* Students watching the video in a noisy environment. By reading what they cannot hear, students watching the tape in a noisy environment will benefit from captioning. * Students who have learning disabilities. Some may comprehend material better when they both see text and hear it spoken aloud.


Employing universal design principles when designing your office, developing your services, and creating your information resources creates an ACCESSIBLE SERVICE area and can minimize the need to provide accommodations later for individuals with special needs.

Questions for Discussi

Send an email message to the group that includes

  1. a BRIEF DESCRIPTION of your program or office and
  2. a SUMMARY of your REFLECTIONS on how YOUR office or program does (and/or might be changed to) incorporate the principles and strategies presented in the CONTENT of this lesson.

Your email SUBJECT line should read: Access 3: UNIVERSAL DESIGN.

Further Information

You can read answers to frequently asked questions, explore case studies, and access additional resources at The Conference Room, https://www.washington.edu/doit/distance-learning-course-serving-students-disabilities.

(c) 2004 DO-IT. Permission is granted to copy material in this email for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged. Contact DO-IT at: 1-206-685-3648 or doit@u.washington.edu.