Universal Design of Distance Learning Courses

As you prepare to deliver preservice or inservice instruction regarding universal design of distance learning courses, the sample presentation may be helpful. Consider including this content along with other diversity issues related to gender and race/ethnicity.


After this presentation, participants will be able to:

  • define universal design
  • list universal design principles
  • list ways that universal design principles can be used to make a more inclusive distance learning course
  • describe the difference between employing universal design principles to maximize access and providing accommodations for students with disabilities


Approximately 60 minutes.


Department chair, educator, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has an understanding of technology used by students who have disabilities and of key elements of online courses. This presentation may be co-presented by a staff member of a campus unit responsible for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities and a website developer.


  • Select the presenter(s).
  • Develop presentation outline and activities using the "Sample Script" provided in this section and the ideas listed in the Presentation Tips section of this notebook.
  • Create presentation slides from provided templates.
  • Add the contact information for campus resources to the "Resources" slide and to printed publications as appropriate.
  • Photocopy the handout templates Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction, and Student Abilities Profile (optional). Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session (see pages 239-241 for examples) or create your own.
  • Add a link on your department's website to AccessSTEM, AccessDL, the Faculty Room, and to the Center for Universal Design in Education.
  • Equipment and Tools

Equipment and Tools

  • DVD player and monitor
  • video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • video (open captioned and audio-described version of Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone)
  • handouts (Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction, and Student Abilities Profile (optional)) 
  • presentation evaluation instrument (pages 239-241)

Presentation Outline

  • Distribute handouts.
  • Introductions.
  • Begin presentation.
  • Present universal design principles and examples in distance learning courses.
  • Introduce and play video as noted in the script.
  • Discuss universal design of distance learning examples, and contrast with examples of the provision of accommodations.
  • Discuss department or campus issues.
  • Discuss case study (optional).
  • Note campus resources.
  • Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult

Sample Script

[Distribute handouts, Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, and Universal Design of Instruction.]

Today we will be discussing principles of universal design and how to apply these principles to distance learning courses for the benefit of all students, including those with disabilities.

The objectives of this presentation are to learn the principles of universal design, apply universal design to instruction, and to understand the difference between universal design and accommodation strategies.


In our schools and distance learning programs today, we serve a diverse student body. Students in your classes come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. There are many types of learning styles and strengths represented, including students who are primarily visual or auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are being included in courses once only available to students without disabilities. Their disabilities may include spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric impairments, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS.

How can you design online instruction to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design can provide a starting point for developing a model for inclusive instruction. This body of knowledge can then be applied to distance learning courses to ensure access for all students.

Universal Design

Designing any lesson or activity involves the consideration of factors that may include learning objectives, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. One issue that designers often overlook is that of universal design. Universal design is defined 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 (Center for Universal Design of North Carolina State University)." Universal design was first applied by architects to provide guidance in the design of environments. Let's discuss the meaning of each principle and its application to educational settings.

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: An instructor's website is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Example: A museum, visited as a field trip for a course, allows each student to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.
  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. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Example: Doors to a classroom open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.
  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. Example: A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- or right-handed and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position.

When designers apply these principles, their products and environments 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 in developing a product she might use.

Making a product 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 noisy airports and restaurants are captioned, they benefit people without disabilities as well as those who are deaf.

[Discuss examples of things you would consider if you were designing a microwave oven, toaster, building, or other product that would be universally accessible.]

Universal Design Applied to Distance Learning

Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services. In the case of classroom instruction or a distance learning class, a goal should be to create a learning environment that allows all students, including a person who happens to have a characteristic that is termed a disability, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities.

In the short video that we will watch, we will see an example of the application of universal design principles to distance learning instruction. The video itself is universally designed, including open captions and audio descriptions for viewers with hearing and visual impairments, respectively. Your handouts Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction summarize the content of the video.

As demonstrated in the video and handouts, considering universal design principles can lead us to a list of guidelines that can be applied as you develop distance learning courses.

When universal design principles are applied to the design of web pages, people using a wide range of adaptive technology can access them. For example, people who are blind often use speech output systems to access computers. These systems read aloud text that is presented on the screen; they do not read graphical images. Therefore, to provide access to websites for students who are blind, we must be sure to include text descriptions for content presented in graphical form, such as pictures, animated images, and image maps.

Universal Design of a Distance Learning Program

Many steps need to be taken to ensure that distance learning courses are accessible to potential students with disabilities. The following Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility of the courses of any distance-learning program. Each indicator relates to one of four key stakeholders in the delivery of distance learning courses:

  1. students and potential students
  2. distance learning designers
  3. distance learning faculty
  4. distance learning program evaluators

On many campuses, particularly those with small distance learning programs, one person may perform two or more of the last three roles.

For Students and Potential Students

Distance learning programs committed to accessibility ensure that students and potential students know of the programs' commitment to accessible design, how to report inaccessible design features they discover, how to request accommodations, and how to obtain alternate formats of printed materials; the distance learning home page is accessible and all online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 1. The distance learning home page is accessible to individuals with disabilities (e.g., it adheres to Section 508, World Wide Web Consortium or institutional accessible-design guidelines and standards).
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 2. A statement about the distance learning program's commitment to accessible design for all potential students, including those with disabilities, is included prominently in appropriate publications and websites along with contact information for reporting inaccessible design features.
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 3. A statement about how distance learning students with disabilities can request accommodations is included in appropriate publications and web pages.
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 4. A statement about how people can obtain alternate formats of printed materials is included in publications.
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 5. The online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

For Distance Learning Designers

Distance learning programs that are committed to accessibility ensure that course designers understand the programs' commitment to accessibility, have access to guidelines and resources, and learn about accessibility in training provided to course designers.

  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 6. Publications and web pages for distance learning course designers include a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, guidelines or standards regarding accessibility, and resources.
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 7. Accessibility issues are covered in course designer training.

For Distance Learning Instructors

In distance learning programs committed to accessibility, publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include a statement of the distance learning programs' commitment to accessibility, guidelines regarding accessibility, and resources; and training for instructors includes accessibility content.

  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 8. Publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and resources.
  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 9. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for instructors.

For Program Evaluators

Distance learning programs committed to accessibility have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts and make adjustments based on evaluation results.

  • DLP Accessibility Indicator 10. A system is in place to monitor the accessibility of courses and, based on this evaluation, the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of specific courses as well as update information and training given to potential students, current students, course designers, and instructors.

Universal Design of Distance Learning Tools

Refer to our handout Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone as we discuss some of the access challenges and accessible solutions for students with disabilities with respects to:

  • Access Barriers
  • Universal Design
  • On-Site Instruction
  • Online Communication
  • Web Pages
  • Printed Materials
  • Video Presentations
  • Telephone Conferences

Benefits to All Students

Universal design of distance learning courses can benefit all students. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to students who are deaf, is also of benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to students with some types of learning disabilities, and to students watching the presentation in a noisy or noiseless environment. Delivering content with multiple modes of presentation can benefit students with a variety of learning styles.

Case Study

[Consider discussing a case study from the Student Abilities Profiles included in the Accommodation Strategies section of this notebook on pages 45-70 or from the AccessSTEM Knowledge Base]


Employing universal design principles in everything we do provides information and access for all individuals regardless of learning style, language, or ability.

[Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.]


For additional resources visit AccessSTEM. Other online resources include AccessDL, the Faculty Room and the Center for Universal Design in Education. [Arrange to provide links from your campus' department website before the presentation.] This resource was developed at the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics educators and employers so that they can make their courses, programs, and worksites accessible to everyone. Consider linking to these websites from your department's website.

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.