Universal Design

Image of students in a botany lab

Students at a college or university come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. There are also students with many types of learning styles and preferences, including those who are primarily visual or 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

The field of universal design (UD) can provide a framework for the design of an employment and employment services at a postsecondary institution. This body of knowledge can guide the creation of presentations, facilities, videos, printed materials, web resources, work sites, and field work that are accessible to everyone.

The Employment Office section of the AccessCollege website includes a courier of universal design, applications of universal design to employment services and a comprehensive set of resources.

Overview of 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 (CUD), "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." Adapting the CUD definition to educational settings results in the application of UD to education to be the design of educational products (e.g., curriculum) and environments (e.g., science labs) to be usable by all people, 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, disabilities and other characteristics of the student body. Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, an accessible course, information resource, or service is created from the beginning. It meets the needs of potential students 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, 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.

Principles and Examples of UD

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:

In summary, UD is accessible, usable, and inclusive. 

Applications of Universal Design to the Employment Office

Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Physical Spaces for information about designing inclusive instructional spaces. To learn about applying universal design to a student work-based learning activity context: 

Check Your Understanding

Employing UD principles to fully include one group 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

Feedback on Responses:

  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.

Getting Started

Looking at all of these suggestions may seem overwhelming. The great thing about universal design, however, is that it can be applied incrementally. For example, a department might begin by creating a task force to explore ways of making the unit more welcoming and accessible to everyone. 

Using the Checklist in Equal Access of Student Services, members of the task force could, as they go through the checklist, cross off checklist items not applicable in their unit, note as "done" those that have already been implemented, and label with a recommended deadline date for those they feel should be addressed by the department. Then, using the online version of the checklist, they could order the items by date and add additional notes as appropriate. Assigning staff and, when needed, securing budget funds could move the project along.

Review the Applications of Universal Design for further information about universal design applications and processes and The Center for Universal Design in Education for more resources. 

Consult the following sections to learn about access challenges and solutions for students and employees with specific types of disabilities. Some accommodations provided for them could be allowed for all students as a universal design strategy.

Q&As, Case Studies, and Promising Practices

For frequently asked questions, case studies, and promising practices, consult the Faculty Room Knowledge BaseWhat is the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)?About the Employment Office Project.


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