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, 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 their educators share this goal. How can instructors design their instruction to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design can provide a starting point. This body of knowledge can then be applied to instructional design and help instructors create courses where lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, web resources and field work are accessible to all students.

Universal Design 

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"(UD) 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." Universal design is an approach to designing the environment and products that takes into consideration the wide variety of characteristics of individuals and the changes experienced by people during their lifetime. Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, an accessible product, activity, or environment is created from the beginning. Disability is just one of many characteristics considered. 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 along with those of other people when developing environments, products, or services.

Making environments, products, or 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 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.

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 to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products. They can be applied to academic programs and instruction.

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. For example, a website 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 of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Science lab 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 in noisy public areas like academic conference exhibits without 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 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 is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. A science lab 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 of Instruction 


Universal design principles can be applied to many environments, products, and services. Following is a definition of universal design of instruction, the design of instruction products and environments to be usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible, without the need of adaptation or specialized design. 

Thus, UD means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes learning goals achievable by students with a wide range of abilities to hear, see, speak, move, read, write, understand English, pay attention, organize, communicate, and remember. "Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact." (Research Connections, Number 5, Fall 1999, p. 2, Council for Exceptional Children)

When designing classroom instruction or a distance learning class, strive to create a learning environment that allows all students, including a person who happens to have a characteristic that is considered a "disability," to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Principles can apply 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. 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: 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. Example: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users.
  4. Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students-consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, education software, field work, and so forth.
  5. Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for 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 course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books in audio format.
  6. Feedback and Assessment. Monitor the effectiveness of instruction through observation and feedback from students with the diverse set of characteristics. Assess learning and modify the course as appropriate.
  7. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. Example: Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities.

Employing UD 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 UD concepts in course planning will assure full 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 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 on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternate formats.

Image of students with in an accessible science lab


Besides classroom instruction, 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 captions or 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.

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. 

UD strategies can be employed in designing specific campus services. Access the following sections of AccessSTEM to learn more:

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.