Universal Design vs. Accommodation

Universal design 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." When designers apply universal design principles, their products and services meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services, including instruction.

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, 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.)

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design 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 formats 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 Web site can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternative formats. See Universal Design for more information on universal design of instruction.

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 termed "disability," to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Universal design principles can apply to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.


Which of the following is an example of universal design of instruction that benefits all students and might eliminate or reduce the need for accommodations for students with a disability? Choose a response.

  1. Selecting fieldwork sites that are wheelchair accessible.
  2. Providing a notetaker.
  3. Making your class notes and outline available electronically.
  4. A flexible attendance policy.
  5. Requesting open-captioned videos.

Feedback on each response:

  1. Yes. Selecting fieldwork sites that are wheelchair accessible can eliminate the need for alternative assignments or last minute modifications for some students with mobility impairments.
  2. No. A notetaker is an accommodation required by some students with disabilities.
  3. Yes. This will provide greater access to your course materials and make it easier, for example, for students who are blind to transcribe information into Braille or use adaptive technology to read the text with speech output software.
  4. No. This might be an appropriate accommodation for a student with a health impairment. However, an attendance policy that it too flexible for too many people may become misused or problematic.
  5. Yes. Open captioning is essentially the same as subtitling. It requires no special equipment. Many students can benefit from open captioning, including students with hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and those for whom English is not their first language.