Universal Design of Instruction

Research Question

What do we know about universal design (UD) of instruction that can guide the design and delivery of professional development for faculty and administrators regarding the equal access of students with disabilities to their courses and programs?

Overview of Research

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design (CUD) 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" (Center for Universal Design, 1997). The field of UD can provide a framework for developing instruction to maximize the learning of all students, including students with a variety of abilities and disabilities, cultures, learning styles, and ages (Bowe, 2000). Faculty members can apply this body of knowledge to create courses in which lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, information technology, science labs, and fieldwork are accessible to all students (Burgstahler, 2008b). Those presenting professional development programs can apply UD principles to their teaching to maximize the learning of participants and to model universal design principles that participants can apply in their own instruction.

The UD principles developed by the CUD provide guidance in the design of products and environments (Connell, Jones, Mace, Mueller, Mullick, Ostroff, et. al., 1997). Each UD principle listed is followed by an example of its application to instruction (Table 1.1) (Burgstahler, 2008b, p. 27).

When UD principles are applied to teaching, an inclusive and equitable learning environment is created. UD design concepts can be used to aid in selecting and developing curricula, choosing and implementing teaching methods, and developing assessments. UD of instruction can increase content accessibility for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations (Burgstahler, 2008b; Durre, Richardson, Smith, Shulman, & Steele, 2008; Higbee, 2008; Scott & McGuire, 2008; Thurlow, Johnstone, & Ketterlin-Geller, 2008).

Of particular application to technology-based learning environments, the term universal design for learning (UDL) has been used to describe a research-based instructional framework using technology to maximize the learning of all students (Rose & Meyer, 2002; Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2008). The three principles of UDL are multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

Table 1.1 Applications of the Seven Principles of Universal Design of Instruction
UD Principle Example of How UD Might Be Applied to Instruction
Equitable use The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. A professor's website is designed so that is is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and use text-to speech software.
Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. 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.
Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.
Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.
Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Educational software provides guidance and/or background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.
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 (The Center for Universal Design, 1997). A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- and right-handed and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position (Burgstahler, 2008b, p. 27).


Table 1.2 DO-IT Universal Design of Instruction Guidelines and Examples
UDI Guideline Examples of UDI Practice
Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. 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 group) will automatically do well or poorly or require certain types of assistance.
Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. 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, written, and in-person communications.
Physical environments/products. Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Arrange instructional spaces to maximize inclusion and comfort. Arrange seating and 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.
Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Provide cognitive supports. Summarize major points, give background/contextual information, deliver effective prompting, provide scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines, class notes, summaries, study guides, and copies of projected materials with room for notes), and other cognitive supports. Deliver these materials in printed form and in a text-based electronic format. Provide opportunities for gaining further background information, vocabulary, and different levels of practice with variable levels of support. Encourage and support students to develop their own scaffolding materials.
Information resources/technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students. 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 alternate formats, such as books in audio format or in Braille (which, for textbooks, can take longer than a month).
Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Provide regular feedback and corrective opportunities. Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due. Give students resubmission options to correct errors in assignments and exams. Arrange for peer feedback when appropriate.
Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple, accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly. Set clear expectations. Keep academic standards consistent for all students, including those who require accommodations. Provide a syllabus with clear statements of course expectations, assignment descriptions, deadlines, and expectations, as well as assessment methods and dates. Include a straightforward grading rubric.
Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. 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. Make sure that assistive technology can be made available in a computer or science lab in a timely manner. Ensure that the course experience is equivalent for students with accommodations and those without (Burgstahler, 2008b, p. 34).

Implications for Practice

Universal design principles can apply directly to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, labs, fieldwork, and other academic activities. Consider the examples in Table 1.2 that faculty may apply to curricula (Burgstahler, 2008b, p. 34).

When creating a presentation for faculty and administrators, UD principles can be employed to make it an inclusive learning environment. Make the content simple, easy to understand, and easy to apply. Participants in your presentation should leave with a clear idea of what they need to do and where they can go for help. Make your presentation flexible; be willing to adjust to the needs and interests of your participants. Customize your training options for specific audiences. Provide alternatives such as short and long presentations, interactive Internet-based instruction, printed materials, and web-based resources.

Use videos with captioning. Demonstrate how visual presentation content can be described so it is accessible to people who cannot see. Show alternative ways to operate a computer or access a website (e.g., speech input, speech output, alternative input devices).


Applying UD principles in your presentation not only meets the accessibility needs of those attending, but also models for postsecondary faculty how accessible teaching can be delivered. UD of instruction maximizes the learning of all students and minimizes the need to provide individual accommodations for students with disabilities.