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Universal Design

Most groups in educational institutions, workplaces, and other settings are diverse with respect to background, cultural and gender identity, first language, socioeconomic status, age, abilities, learning preferences, and myriad other characteristics. All people have an intersecting identity made up of a variety of these unique facets. Some of us have characteristics considered by many to be “disabilities,” including people who are blind, are deaf or hard of hearing, are on the autism spectrum, and have mobility impairments, attention deficits, learning disabilities, and health impairments.

How can educators design instruction to maximize the learning of all students? How can employers create environments to maximize productivity of all employees? How can IT professionals procure and develop products that are accessible to and useable by everyone? How can student services make their offerings inclusive of everyone? A number of proactive approaches discussed in the literature consider a broad audience in design practices. They include universal design, accessible design, barrier-free design, usable design, inclusive design, and design for all. Of the proactive design approaches, there is no approach that addresses greater user diversity than universal design (UD).

The UD Framework

To flesh out the UD Framework, important aspects to address include the scope of the application area, definition, principles, guidelines, exemplary practices, and process.

What is the scope of your application?

The scope of applications of UD in Higher Education (UDHE) includes all products and environments that directly or indirectly support teaching and learning in higher education. Examples of more narrowly defined scopes are applications of UD to online learning, informal science learning, student services, IT, or physical spaces.

What are principles and guidelines relevant to the UD Framework?

Three sets of principles provide guidance for applying universal design regardless of the scope.

PRINCIPLES OF UD

The seven principles of universal design established by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State were developed to guide the design of any product, service, or environment. They follow along with an example of the application of each.

  • Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. A website that is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including people who are blind, employs this principle.
  • Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. A museum that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of a display case employs this principle.
  • Simple and intuitive. The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Science lab equipment with control buttons that are clear and intuitive employs this principle.
  • Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Video captioning employs this principle.
  • Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. An educational software program that provides guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection employs this principle.
  • Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Doors that open automatically employ this principle.
  • Size and space for approach and use. The design provides appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. A science lab with adjustable tables employs this principle.

PRINCIPLES OF UDL

Universal design principles can be applied to many environments, products, and services, including learning environments, resources, and methods of instruction. Three principles have been established for the universal design of teaching and learning materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with diverse characteristics, including wide differences in abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning (UDL) 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.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) created a set of three principles with roots in cognitive neuroscience to underpin practices and curriculum for teaching and learning. The UDL principles are listed below.

Multiple means of engagement. For purposeful, motivated learners, stimulate interest and motivation for learning. Three UDL guidelines under this principle promote the development of curriculum and instruction that includes options for perception; language, expressions, and symbolism; and comprehension.
Multiple means of representation. For resourceful, knowledgeable learners, present information and content in different ways. Three UDL guidelines under this principle promote the development of curriculum and instruction that includes options for physical action, expressive skills and fluency, and executive functions.
Multiple means of action and expression. For strategic, goal-directed learners, differentiate the ways that students can express what they know. Three UDL guidelines under this principle promote the development of curriculum and instruction that includes options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self-regulation.

UD OF IT

The third set of principles to support the UD Framework provides guidance to the design of IT used in many products and environments. In the early years of the Internet, UD practices began to be applied to the design of hardware and software to ensure accessibility to individuals with disabilities, English language learners, and other groups. These efforts led to the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and related practices are underpinned by four guiding principles. Together, they require IT components to be these four qualities:

  • Perceivable. Users must be able to perceive the content, regardless of the device or configuration they are using. 
  • Operable. Users must be able to operate the controls, buttons, sliders, menus, etc., regardless of the device they are using.
  • Understandable. Users must be able to understand the content and interface. 
  • Robust. Content must be coded in compliance with relevant coding standards in order to ensure it is accurately and meaningfully interpreted by devices, browsers, and assistive technologies.

How the three sets of principles and guidelines work together in a specific application

A great example of how these three sets of principles can be integrated together is when designing a class. Whether the class is in-person or online, the design of the class should strive to be inclusive to all students, including those with disabilities, and allow all students 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. The 7 Principles of UD are particularly helpful when designing instructional facilities like computer labs; the 3 Principles of UD guide the development of teaching curriculum and pedagogy; and the 4 Principles for the UD of IT that underpin the WCAG guide the creation of IT used in any application to ensure that it is accessible to, usable by, and inclusive of everyone, including those with disabilities.

The following examples for the Universal Design of Instruction that employ all three sets of UD principles were developed by the AccessCollege project of the DO-IT Center with input from a nationwide collaborative team. There are eight areas of application.

 

  • Inclusiveness. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  • Physical Access. Ensure that activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Examples: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users; label safety equipment simply, in large print, and in a location viewable from a variety of angles; repeat printed directions verbally.
  • Delivery Methods. Use a variety of accessible instructional methods. Example: Use multiple modes—e.g., lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, web-based communications, educational software, field work, etc.—to deliver content and motivate and engage students.
  • Information Resources. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are flexible and accessible to all students. Example: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early, to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the class begins and to allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as audiobooks.
  • Interaction. Encourage effective interactions between students and between students and the instructor, and assure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work that emphasizes collaboration and places a high value on different skills and roles.
  • Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Example: Allow students to present portions of their work for feedback before the final project is due.
  • Assessment. Regularly assess student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Use a variety of accessible methods and tools to assess the performance of students in collaborative groups and as individuals.
  • Accommodation. Plan for additional accommodations to address any specific student needs. Example: Be prepared to provide materials in alternate formats, change classroom locations, or arrange for other disability accommodations.

Although employing universal design principles to instruction does not eliminate the need for special accommodations—e.g., a sign language interpreter for a deaf student—it does ensure full access to the content for most students. By applying universal design to your courses as you create them, you save time by minimizing the need to make accommodations later. For example, letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternate formats. For more information on accommodations and examples of what to plan for, visit our Accommodations pages.

References

Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. A., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their applications. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 135-151.