Universal Design

Research Questions

  • What do we know about universal design that can guide the development of accessible facilities, services, and information resources for students with disabilities?
  • What do we know about universal design of instruction that can guide the design and delivery of professional development for staff and administrators?

Overview of Research

The term universal design (UD) refers to the practice of designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest range of characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess; others to consider include age, gender, professional position, reading level, learning style, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "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" (www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/newweb/about_ud/aboutud.htm). It is desirable that environments, products, and services be directly usable without add-on technologies. If this is not possible, then they should be made usable with popular assistive technologies.

With the goal of providing guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design. They are listed below, along with examples of design guidelines for applying each principle.

Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible, equivalent when not.
  • Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  • Make provisions for privacy, security, and safety equally available to all users.
  • Make the design appealing to all users.

Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • Provide choices in methods of use.
  • Accommodate right- and left-handed access and use.
  • Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.
  • Adapt to the user's pace.

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.

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • Arrange information to be consistent with its importance.
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  • Maximize legibility of essential information.
  • Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to understand instructions or directions).
  • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended action.

  • Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors.
  • Provide warnings of hazards and errors.

Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  • Use reasonable operating sources.
  • Minimize repetitive actions.
  • Minimize sustained physical effort.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  • Create easy reach to all components, comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  • Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
  • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance (Bowe, 2000, pp. 23-62).
Photo of students in a computer lab.

Universal Design in Education

Originally applied in the field of architecture, universal design has more recently emerged as a paradigm for education (e.g., Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Burgstahler, 2005d; Conuell, et al., 1997; DO-IT, 2003). While traditional design focuses on the average user and accessible design focuses on people with disabilities, universal design in education (UDE) promotes an expanded view of making educational products and environments useful to people with a wider range of characteristics that include those related to gender, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, ability, disability, and learning style (Bowe, 2000). It provides a philosophical framework for the design of a broad range of educational products and environments, including websites, educational software, instruction, and student services.

Examples of the seven principles of universal design applied in educational settings are listed below.

  • Equitable Use. A website that is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including people who are blind and using speech output technology, employs this principle.
  • Flexibility in Use. 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.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use. Science lab equipment with control buttons that are clear and intuitive is an example of an application of this principle.
  • Perceptible Information. An example of this principle being employed is when television programming projected in a student union building includes captions.
  • Tolerance for Error. An application of this principle is software used for online registration that provides guidance when the student makes an inappropriate selection.
  • Low Physical Effort. Doors that open with sensors can be used by people with a wide variety of physical abilities and by those with an armload of books.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use. An accessible and adjustable study area in a library employs this principle.

Application of universal design to instruction gives each student meaningful access to the course curriculum and instructional activities, adding a new dimension to accepted principles of good teaching. It can be applied in classroom instruction, in web-based distance learning, and within campus tutoring centers (Burgstahler, 2002, 2005c, 2005d; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2005; Mason & Orkwis, 2005; McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2003; Orkwis, 2003; Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005; Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998).

Few published articles have focused on accessible or universal design of student services (e.g., Kroeger, 1993; Uzes & Connelly, 2003; Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2003). However, DO-IT at the University of Washington, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, has worked with more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide to develop training materials for and deliver training to postsecondary student services organizations (DO-IT, n.d.; DO-IT, 2003). The Student Services Conference Room at www.washington.edu/doit/Conf provides a self-paced learning environment for student administrators and staff and a collection of train-the-trainer printed and video materials to use for on-site and online training.

Implications for Practice

The field of universal design can provide a framework for developing facilities, services, and information resources that are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. This approach will minimize the need for specific accommodations and also benefit older adults, students for whom English is not their first language, and those using older technology.

Those presenting professional development programs to staff can also apply universal design principles to maximize learning and to model universal design principles that participants can apply in their own service areas. For example, use multiple modes of delivery and adjust to the needs and interests of your participants. Use videos with captions. Demonstrate how you can verbalize the content of projected materials and verbally describe graphs and cartoons so that they are accessible to people who cannot see them. Host presentations in facilities that are wheelchair-accessible.

Help participants learn to apply universal design to service development and improvement efforts. Use the checklists within the handouts included in this notebook to make student services accessible to students with disabilities. They are tailored to specific services such as libraries, tutoring and learning centers, registration, computer labs, and career centers. Several videos include powerful demonstrations of key concepts.

Customize your training options for specific audiences. Provide alternatives such as short and long presentations, interactive computer-based instruction, printed materials, and web resources.


Universal design maximizes access to facilities, programs, and resources and minimizes the need to provide individual accommodations for students with disabilities. Applying universal design principles in your presentation not only meets the accessibility needs for those attending but also models how accessible instruction can be delivered.