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Universal Design of Instruction


After completion of this lesson, participants will be able to:

  • list at least three universal design principles
  • list three ways that universal design principles can be used to make a more inclusive classroom
  • describe the difference between employing universal design principles to maximize access and providing accommodations for students with disabilities


Approximately 40-60 minutes.


Department chair, faculty, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has experience working with students with disabilities. This presentation may be presented by, or co-presented with, a staff member of a campus unit responsible for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities.


  • 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.
  • 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 Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction. Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session or create your own.
  • Add links on your department's website to The Faculty Roomand to The Center for Universal Design in Education.

Equipment and Tools

  • DVD player and monitor
  • Video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • Video (open-captioned and audio described version of Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction)
  • Handouts (Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.)
  • Presentation evaluation instrument

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handouts.
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Discuss universal design principles and examples.
  5. Introduce and play video as noted in the script.
  6. Discuss universal design of instruction examples and contrast with the provision of accommodations.
  7. Discuss department or campus issues.
  8. Note campus resources.
  9. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult:

Sample Script

Today we will be discussing principles of universal design of instruction and how to use these principles in your instruction for the benefit of all students, including those with disabilities.

The objectives of today's presentation are to:

  • discuss the principles of universal design
  • apply principles of universal design of instruction to meet a wide range of student learning needs
  • explain the difference between employing universal design principles to maximize access and providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities

Diversity in Postsecondary Institutions

Today, postsecondary institutions attract a diverse student body.

Students come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. 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 pursuing postsecondary education.

Their disabilities may include spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS.

The probability that you will have a student with a disability in one of your classes is high. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Postsecondary Education (2006b), 11.3% of all undergraduates reported having a disability.

You and the students in your classroom share the common goal of education. So how can you design your 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. Universal design can be applied to instructional design and help you create courses in which lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, and fieldwork are accessible to all students.

Universal Design

Designing any product or service involves the consideration of factors that may include aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. One issue that designers often overlook is that of "universal design."

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."

At the center, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers collaborated to establish a set of principles of universal design. The principles provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products.

Let's discuss the meaning and an example of each principle as provided in your handout Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples.

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: A professor'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 lecture hall 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 universal design principles, their products and facilities 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, thirteen years old, a poor reader, and deaf. All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered when 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 people on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts. Another example is television displays in airports and restaurants that are captioned. The captioning benefits 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 of Instruction

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 people with disabilities, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities.

In the short video that we will now 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 summarize the content of the video.

As demonstrated in the video and summarized in the handouts, universal design principles can be applied as you develop online and on-site courses. They can apply to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

When universal design principles are applied to the design of webpages, 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 but 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, images, and graphs.

Let's create a list of examples of how principles of universal design apply to instruction. What are some of the diverse characteristics your students might have?

[Encourage discussion. Consider English as a second language, different cultures, blindness, no use of hands, etc.]

What are some examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design and make your course content accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, language skills, and learning styles?

[Encourage participation and include all or some of the following examples. This activity could be conducted in small groups followed by a large group discussion.]

[Examples of universal design instructional methods:

  • Create a classroom environment that respects and values diversity. Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  • Ensure that classrooms, labs, and fieldwork are in locations accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities.
  • Use multiple modes to deliver content. Alternate delivery methods include lecture, discussion, hands-on activities, Internet-based interaction, and fieldwork.
  • Provide print or web-based materials that summarize content delivered orally.
  • Face the class and speak clearly.
  • Provide captioned videos.
  • Provide print materials in an electronic format.
  • Provide text descriptions of images presented on webpages.
  • Provide printed materials early. This allows students to prepare for the topic to be presented and access materials in alternative formats.
  • Create print and web-based materials in simple, consistent formats. This practice is particularly helpful to students with learning disabilities and students for whom English is a second language.
  • Provide effective prompting during an activity and feedback after the assignment is completed.
  • Encourage different ways for students to interact with each other and with you. These methods may include in-class questions and discussion, group work, and web-based communications.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. For example, besides traditional tests and papers, consider group work, demonstrations, portfolios, and presentations as options for demonstrating knowledge.
  • Make sure equipment and activities minimize sustained physical effort.]

Now, let's summarize how you might employ universal design principles to make specific activities accessible to all students. Consider the following areas of application:

[Encourage discussion and sharing of examples.]

  • class climate
  • physical environments/products
  • delivery methods
  • information resources/technology
  • interaction
  • feedback
  • assessment
  • accommodation

Universal Design vs. Accommodations

Does employing universal design principles in instruction eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities? In a word, no. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, using universal design principles in course planning will ensure greater access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class. Planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run.

Preserving Educational Standards

Course content and evaluation standards are the purview of the instructor. An instructor can preserve academic instructional integrity when employing universal design principles or when providing instructional accommodations for students with disabilities. Disability accommodations should not alter instructional content or evaluation standards. The student with a disability should face the same intellectual challenges as other students.

To ensure that the same content is presented to every student in the class, it is helpful to distinguish the academic content from the instructional methods used to deliver the information.

When instructional objectives and academic content are separated from the method of instructional content, it is easier for the instructor to think about how they can provide the information in a variety of modalities. The goal is to modify the methods and procedures for a student with a disability while preserving the educational content and evaluation standards of the course.

Let's look at examples for separating essential instructional content in an academic class from the methods used to deliver and evaluate content.

[Ask participants to give examples from their own classrooms.]

For example, testing objectives and content should be considered separately from testing method. Tests should be designed to measure the level of mastery in a subject area. For a student with a disability, you may need to use an alternate method that tests for the same level of mastery as is used for other students. In other words, you change the testing procedure to evaluate mastery of the same content as that expected of other students. To fail the student who knows the content but has difficulty with a type of testing methodology because of his disability, is as unfair as passing a student who does not know the material.

Benefits to All Students

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

Case Study

[Consider having participants discuss a case study. Case #6 in the Presentation Tips section.]


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


Here are some resources that might be useful to you as you work to maximize effective communication with all students in your classes. [Elaborate.]

For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit The Faculty Room and The Center for Universal Design in Education.

These resources were developed at the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to faculty and administrators so that they can make their courses and programs accessible to all students. You can link to these resources from ____. [Arrange to provide a link from your campus' disabled student services website before the presentation.] Consider linking to these websites from your department's faculty 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.