Universal Design

Image of students working in a lab

Students in academic classes come from a wide variety of backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. In most classes, there are students with different 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

Students want to learn and educators share this goal. How can instructors, science lab administrators, and support staff design their offerings to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design (UD) can provide frameworks for creating inclusive products and environments. This body of knowledge can then be applied to create lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, web resources and field work that are accessible to all students.

This section of the STEM Lab includes an overview of UD and applications of UD to STEM instruction.

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. 


Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) 

Universal design principles can be applied to any instructional product or environment. Using the CUD format, UDI can be defined as the design of instructional products and environments to be usable by all students to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

When designing on-site or online instruction, UD challenges the instructor 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 be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Below are examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design. They are organized under eight performance indicator categories, with a goal statement for each. Applying these strategies can make your course content accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

  1. Class Climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Avoid stereotyping. Offer instruction and support based on student performance and requests, not simply on assumptions that members of certain groups (e.g., students with certain types of disabilities or from a specific racial/ethnic groups) will automatically do well or poorly or require certain types of assistance.
  2. Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Promote effective communication. Employ interactive teaching techniques. Face the class, speak clearly, use a microphone if your voice does not project adequately for all students, and make eye contact with students. Consider requiring a meeting with each student. Supplement in-person contact with online communication. Use straightforward language, avoid unnecessary jargon and complexity, and use student names in electronic and in-person communications. 
  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. Example: Arrange instructional spaces to maximize inclusion and comfort. Arrange seating to encourage participation, giving each student a clear line of sight to the instructor and visual aids and allowing room for wheelchairs, personal assistants, sign language interpreters, captionists, and assistive technology. Minimize distractions for students with a range of attention abilities (e.g., put small groups in quiet work areas). Work within constraints to make the environment as inclusive as possible. encourage administrators to apply UD principles in facility design and renovation. 
  4. Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Provide cognitive supports. Summarize major points, give background/contextual information, deliver effective prompting, and provide scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines, class notes, summaries, study guides, and copies of projected materials with room for notes). Deliver these materials in printed form and in a text-based electronic format. Provide opportunities for gaining further background information, vocabulary, and practice. 
  5. Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students. Example: Select materials early. Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for electronic and other alternate formats to be obtained. 
  6. Feedback and Assessment. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis using multiple, accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Provide regular feedback and corrective opportunities. Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is ue. Give studnets resubmission options to correct errors in assignments and exams. Arrange for peer feedback when appropriate.
  7. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. Example: Know how to arrange for accommodations. Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities. Ensure that the course experience is equivalent for students with accommodations and those without.

Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction for a comprehensive list of examples of UDI strategies. View the corresponding video for an overview of UDI. Consult Universal Design of Physical Space for information about designing inclusive instructional space. View the corresponding video for an overview of UDI. Consult Universal Design of Physical Spaces for information about designing inclusive instructional spaces.

As represented by UDI application area 7 above, employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will ensure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations in the future. For example, designing web resources in accessible format as they are developed means that no re-development is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class; planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments in accessible formation on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternative formats

Image of students with in an accessible science lab


Besides classroom instruction, Internet-based distance learning courses can be designed to be accessible to the broadest audience. To learn how, consult the DO-IT publications Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone and Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning.

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

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.

Consult Published Books and Articles About Universal Design in Higher Education (UDHE) for more information about UD, especially how it can be applied in educational settings. 

Specific Applications of UDI in STEM

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. 

Universal design strategies can be employed in designing specific academic activities. Access the following sections to learn more:

Consult the following sections to learn about access challenges and solutions for students with specific types of disabilities. 

Q&As, Case Studies, and Promising Practices

For frequently asked questions, case studies, and promising practices, consult the AccessSTEM Knowledge Base


The content of this web page was adapted with permission from the following publications.