35 Universal Design

Universal Design is the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) that are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances). Universal Design emerged from the slightly earlier concept of being barrier-free, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive and assistive technology. It also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations.

Let’s review some common definitions of Universal Design:

Universal Design or Universal Instructional Design (UID):
“is an approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional and evaluation strategies. This approach provides academic access to a broad range of learners, including students with disabilities, while:
maintaining academic standards […]
reducing the need to having to retrofit after a course is already underway[1]”

Universal Instructional Design (UID):
is an approach to designing course instruction, materials and content to benefit people of all learning styles without adaptation or retrofitting. UID provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. UID allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the instructor monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods. …It should be noted that UID does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access.[2]

Why Universal Design?

For our purposes, we frame the practice of using Universal Design in a holistic and manageable way, and begin by addressing the barriers that are easy to anticipate and proactively re-mediate. This toolkit, therefore, will provide guidance to you if the answers to any of the following questions is “yes”:

  • Do I have visual materials that present core concepts that not all students may be able to see or understand?
  • Do I have multimedia (audio, video) materials that present core concepts that not all students may be able to be hear, see, or access?
  • Do I have documents that present core concepts in a format that not all students may be able to access?
  • For the purpose of the OER Accessibility Toolkit, we focus on an adjunct to Universal Design, that being Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone. Rather than a single, one-size-fits-all solution, it offers a flexible approach that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.[3]


The principles of Universal Design for Learning can be summarized by the following points:

  • Present information and content in various ways.
  • Provide more than one way for learners to express what they know.
  • Stimulate interest and motivation for learning.


OER creators can apply these principles in course design by following several guidelines:

  • Design resources and activities that can be accessed by learners in a variety of ways. For example, if there is a text component, provide the ability to enlarge the font size or change the text color. For images and diagrams, always provide an equivalent text description. For video, include text captions.
  • Provide multiple ways for learners to engage with information and demonstrate their knowledge. This is particularly important to keep in mind as you design activities and assessments.
  • Identify activities that require specific sensory or physical capability and for which it might be difficult or impossible to accommodate the accessibility needs of learners. For example, an activity that requires learners to identify objects by color might cause difficulties for learners with visual impairments. In these cases, consider whether there is a pedagogical justification for the activity being designed in that way. If there is a justification, communicate these requirements to prospective learners in the course description and establish a plan for responding to learners who encounter barriers.


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