universal design in education

Some people in higher education don’t get universal design, especially when creating curriculum or web sites. UD isn’t about the branding or style. And it isn’t about accommodation or creating content for the lowest common denominator student (a phrase that borders on insulting to those students who are left out when universal design isn’t practiced). UD is about getting it right the first time by providing content accessible to all users, not just those with a disability. Instead of one-size-fits-all, UD recognizes that there are numerous sizes. The goal is to provide a continuum of sizes to fit each individual. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point entirely.

The original view on accessibility was that you had to create a special solution for disabled users in addition to your general solution for non-disabled users. After you created your original curriculum (or web site), you went back and tried to add features that made your site more accessible. For example, building that whizz-bang, Flash-only (“high bandwidth”) web site, and then duplicating it as a text-only (“low bandwidth”) site. Sound familiar? It was a compliance issue: as long as you made something accessible, you were in the clear.

For those who can’t get past 1998, universal design is about building things that everyone can use, no matter their level of capability. It is this simple:

“In terms of curriculum, universal design implies a design of instructional materials and activities that allows learning goals to be attainable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Such a flexible, yet challenging, curriculum gives teachers the ability to provide each student access to the subject area without having to adapt the curriculum repeatedly to meet special needs.” ~ Curriculum Access and Universal Design for Learning

For goodness sake, universal design is trying to reduce the workload and number of special requests. That has to be positive, right?

The same goes for web sites. Good web designers/developers make an effort to create very well formed, semantic and progressively enhanced web sites. Not only does this approach help organize content in a cleaner, more reusable fashion, but paying attention to standards up front means that my web site is usable by everyone. I don’t have to go back and create a segregate site that is specifically accessible to certain people. Instead, I get to manage a single site that provides complete content to all users. With progressive enhancement (rooted in universal design principles), that content can be experienced by users with a broad range of capabilities.

People who don’t get UD feel that if they can’t have their Flash-only website, they are limited in some manner. I’ve found that web sites that follow a progressive enhancement model (build it first so it works for everyone, then add layers of the “whizz-bang” so you get the final product you want) end up more powerful and more robust. You have to work smarter on the front end, but there’s a kind of gestalt that happens when you do it well instead of just doing it with the latest/greatest technology (or the way you’ve always done it).

UD is meant to be an approach that takes the segregation out of accessibility efforts. Instead of accommodating after the fact, we are simply designing better content. If you do it right, you are not creating curriculum for the lowest common denominator. You are creating curriculum that can be consumed by the widest range of students possible. You are creating web sites that reach the widest possible audience. To attempt otherwise is to stick with the idea that all students (and web site visitors) are alike. We know they are not, and we know their learning/interaction styles are not the same (disability or no). Even if disabilities were not at issue here, universal design would still be the best way to create curricula, web sites, buildings, sidewalks, etc., because universal design recognizes that worthwhile learning and interaction cannot be homogeneous.

Pony up your stale curricula and inaccessible web sites, academia, and build something that works for each unique student or site visitor instead of something that works only for people with the same capabilities as you.

16 replies on “universal design in education”

  1. Misconceptions about UD abound. But for you and others who really get it, we would be mightily discouraged. But we persevere, regroup, and figure out how to open more minds, right? I’m so glad you’re on our team, Daniel!

  2. Nicely stated, Daniel. I recall our first conversation about universal design and how it provided a framework for the way you already viewed design. You and the web services team demonstrate to us all that good design equals inclusive design. Your work demonstrates a rich understanding of the principles of UD. Thank you for sharing your comments and reactions.

  3. What an eloquent statement, Daniel. No matter if one is an educator, administrator, or someone else within the university system, the main goal that we all should strive to attain, is equitable education. Therefore, whether someone agrees or disagrees with a particular view, the most important thing is to educate and provide the best education possible for each student. If UD helps us to attain that equitable degree of education, then we should all embrace it and be thankful for it.

  4. I think I understand UD as applied to buildings, sidewalks, etc.

    I also think I understand UD as applied to web sites.

    But I’m not sure I understand UD applied to curriculum. A curriculum is not an object, like a building or a web site.

    I also think that expecting professors to build professional websites and such is inappropriate. Professors are experts in their specialty areas, not website design.

    Most people can’t build their own simple website, much less build a professional website that is accessible to as many people as possible.

    There is a high probability that a building will be used by a disabled person, so UD is appropriate; it makes sense to design the building to be accessible from the first drawing.

    However, there is a much lower probability that any particular course will be taken by a disabled person. If a professor does a lot of work to make a course accessible to a blind student but a blind student never takes the course, then the professor could have spent her time in a more productive ways, right?

    Most people are overworked as it is. If they had more time, they already have a huge list of things they would like to add. Designing courses for hypothetical students who may never take those courses seems to me to be a questionable allocation of time and effort.

    However, I can certainly imagine cases in which it really is just as easy to make an object accessible as it is to make the object some other way. But how will professors learn how to do it the “right” way? That would take training, and that takes time—and it takes time away from something else.

    Also, will a professor get “credit” for taking the time and effort to apply UD to their courses? That is, will that effort count toward annual raises, toward promotion, toward tenure? I seriously doubt it.

    I’m all for making things as accessible as possible for people, but there are a lot of other very worthy projects competing for that time and effort.

    Is UD more important than other teaching, service, and research activities?

    It is certainly important for an individual student to get access to the courses and degree programs they desire. But making accomodations tailored to the needs of a real student might well be more efficient than making universal accomodations for the myriad of needs of a lot of hypothetical students.

  5. I need to clarify that universal design does not equal nor limit itself to the concept of accessibility. We need to get past that misconception, as I think it makes this discussion that much harder.

    It is not a matter of putting universal design ahead of teaching, service, and research, and you very well know it. We can always do things smarter. Or have our faculty reached the end of their capability to improve the way students are educated? And the first step toward that is for the faculty to take advantage of the folks on our campus who do have the time and resources to assist faculty to generate curriculum using the principles of universal design.

    Disabled students are real students, Nick. They are not hypothetical. And the principles of UD infer that there is a continuum of disability and ability in every student. The argument isn’t “do something extra for the minority”–thus your rebuttal of “we should focus on the majority” doesn’t apply here–the argument is that we should endeavor to create curricula (and its tangible artifacts) in such a way that acknowledges the heterogeneous nature of the abilities in each student.

    When you acknowledge that the goal is to create better content the first time around because all students have some level of disability in the same way they have many abilities, the probability of a professor interacting with a student with some sort of disability is effectively 100%. That’s the point. If you approach the generation of both the educational plan and the materials/objects that make up that plan from a standpoint of universal design, then you are not making accommodations for just anyone, but everyone.

    Think of it this way: what if you produced an artifact for a course that was necessary to the completion of the course in a format that could only be used on a Microsoft Windows system. Well, I have a Mac. Ignoring choice (imagine that we were assigned an operating system from birth), your course is that much more difficult for me to interact with. I rarely think of my Mac as a disability, but in this example it defines the tool I must use to interact with your course. Because your material was not created with the principles of universal design in mind, I have to go find other resources outside of your course just to start out with the same opportunity to succeed as the majority of students.

    But what if you designed your material to be usable by any operating system out there? That’s not as hard as it sounds nowadays. You just pop your content onto a web site of some sort. So, sure, you helped the “disabled” Mac user. But you know what? You also helped every single one of your “enabled” Windows users because now they can access your content from anywhere in the world with a web browser (their phone, for example). Before, they had to use a desktop machine running your Windows-proprietary software.

    That is universal design.

    The more times that an education plan includes these principles, the fewer resources the University and the student has to expend to simply get involved in the education experience itself. Isn’t that worth our time and effort?

    And no, I don’t expect professors to be able create professional web sites on their own. But I do expect them to want to, and I expect them to avail themselves of all the resources that are around them to create web sites that are both professional and useful to all visitors. Just because you can’t do something on your own doesn’t mean that it should not be done. One finds people to help do it well, instead of attempting to silence their efforts because it looks like more work. There’s a definition of leadership in there somewhere.

  6. What is learning theory teaching us in recent years? It suggests that not all learn the same way. It also suggests that different aspects of knowledge, skills and abilities are best addressed with different sets of learning tools.

    What’s this got to do with UD? I suspect everything. Nick does point out the concerns about ‘accessibility’ built into a course where nobody shows up who requires that particular tool (in this case because they have a particular ‘disability’). Daniel responds by reminding us that UD is about more than accessibility.

    But Daniel’s example is on the nose. As a fellow Mac user, i have been frustrated with a university that doesn’t seem to ‘get’ Mac users and finds it somehow over-burdening on the university to make university tools (software and the like) ‘accessible’ to the ‘disabled’ Mac users.


    I’m not disabled; I’m differentially abled. In fact, most of the time, my OS is less ‘clunky’ than those ‘limited PC’ users who are the majority. But there have been times that I’ve been told, I need to adapt, to change or to go away because I’m Mac.

    Differentially-abled. I still remember a blind student saying to me once, “I don’t depend on sight to see things.”

    My students don’t see the same way; teaching tools require me to adapt to not only differential learning styles, but also to realize that the ‘what’ is learned varies as well. Seems to me that UD ideally is just a restatement of that concept.

    1. Thanks for posting this Roby (and thanks to Nick too–regardless of my viewpoint on this, Nick is doing exactly what he should by joining the discussion and posting his very real concerns in this age of low budgets and strapped resources). Roby brought learning theory into play, which is something I wanted to do but is not something I have studied as much as UD. I feel that the two ideas have related goals.

  7. Thanks Daniel for a most intersting piece. If you ever decide to teach a class on Universal Design, I am so there.

    Best Regards,
    Karen Irons
    Teacher Education

  8. I think Nick goes wrong near the start:

    I’m not sure I understand UD applied to curriculum. A curriculum is not an object, like a building or a web site.

    As regards their objectness*, a curriculum and a web site are very similar and have only distant similarities to a building. In what sense, Nick, do you find this not so?

    *objectitude? objectiality? objecthood?

  9. I’d be interested in taking a course on this and related topics as a masters level class. Any plans to make such a thing happen?

  10. First of all, let me state that I am in favor of Universal Design (UD), as I understand it. In fact, I spoke against the recent faculty senate resolution that tried to squash UD.

    Second, I never suggested that using UD principles was somehow in opposition to teaching, service, and research. What I suggested is that it is only one aspect of those efforts, and it competes with many other very worthwhile projects for time, energy, and resources.

    Third, I never suggested that disabled people were not real. It simply is not clear to me that there is less effort involved in using UD than there is in making specific accomodations for specific students, each of whom might have a very different need. In my opinion, it would take a herculean effort to make a course truly universal (for every hypothetical student that might walk into my classroom). However, it does not necessarily take a herculean effort to solve a specific problem for a specific real student that wants to take my course.

    Fourth, the PC vs. MAC discussion is interesting. When I arrived at UALR in 1996 from my graduate studies at RPI and Yale, I was like a fish out of water. I had never even seen either a PC or a MAC at those engineering schools. My research involved doing scientific computing to solve mechanical engineering problems on massively parallel supercomputers, and it was a 100% UNIX environment. But even undergraduate computer labs for the computer science and engineering students were 100% UNIX. When I came to UALR, no one could even install my computer properly because there was no UNIX support on this campus. Many of the things I was able to do easily in the 1970’s and 1980’s in a UNIX environment are still difficult or impossible in a PC/MAC environment, or they have only recently become possible (e.g., logging in to my office computer from home). I was seriously impeded from continuing with my research by the lack of scientific computing infrastructure at UALR. I had to spend my time on hardware and software infrastructure issues instead of my research. So, I found it frustrating to work at a university that did not support UNIX users.

    Fifth, let me close by again stating that I support the principles of UD as I understand them. However, there is a caveat. Designing a course to be truly universal is not a simple task. The design would have to address every possible disability, every possible learning style, every possible student ability, every possible level of student preparation, every possible motive for taking the course, every possible language, every possible cultural background, etc. I’m not sure that it is even possible to make a course truly universal. However, do not confuse that skepticism with opposition—just because something is hard does not mean that we should not try to do it.

  11. The concept of universal design arises from another paradigm shift. It arises from a shift in how one views and responds to disability. The traditional approach has been to view disability as an individual issue. In this view, the person with a disability has a difference and that difference is a problem. The solution is, therefore, to do something “special” to resolve that problem when that individual enters the environment or situation.

    But what if we were to look at disability through a different lens?

    Nick already pointed out a situation in which the environment, for him, was disabling. He did not have the tools that matched his prior experience and knowledge. He had to jump through additional hoops to accomplish the same tasks.

    Imagine a student who is blind taking a course in which all of the materials are provided electronically through an accessible course management system in a format that works with her screen reader. She takes a laptop to class to take notes and has the handouts on the laptop as well so that she can refer to them as they are being discussed. Exams are provided online in an accessible format and in such a manner that she does not need to request extra time.

    The same student takes another course that is designed differently. The professor provides printed handouts during almost every class meeting. He emails them to the blind student right after class but the student does not have access to the handouts during class. Exams are provided in class on paper and are not formatted in a way the works for a screen reader user. So the professor emails the exam to the DRC to be reformatted. The DRC provides a laptop on exam day so that professor can be assured that she does not have access to materials that might be available on her own laptop.

    The student’s condition did not change in any way, of course. But in the first environment the fact that the student is blind is a non-issue in terms of participation, whereas the second environment is “disabling.” Sure the student had access to the same materials as other students but it was certainly not seamless integration.

    Such a comparison makes it clear that the problem of access lies with the designer rather than with the student. This is reflective of a social or interactive definition of disability. In this view disability lies at the intersection of the individual and the design. Disability results from the present (but not the potential) inability of designers to create inclusive environments. [Italic formatting is the editor’s.]

    This leads us back to universal design. Designing a course using the principles of universal design is not something that will occur overnight. universal design does not offer all of the solutions to every problem of access. It does challenge us to ask the right questions. It challenges us to recognize that when an accommodation is necessary, perhaps that is an opportunity to think differently about design. Certainly it is easier to conceive of the solutions in a static environment–like a building or a website–than in a dynamic one, but until we begin to challenge ourselves to shift our thinking then we will remain satisfied with the status quo. [Bold formatting is the editor’s.]

  12. Arkansawyer wrote: “As regards their objectness*, a curriculum and a web site are very similar and have only distant similarities to a building. In what sense, Nick, do you find this not so?”

    A building and a web site are designed by someone, but are intended to be used by others. Their structures are defined, not by the users, but by the designer. There can be some interactivity, such as this blog, on which I am attempting to add content. However, I can only add content that fits into the blog structure created by Daniel. He has additional control over that structure because he chooses which blog comments to post publicly and which blog comments to discard. Some buildings allow users some interactivity also, e.g., moveable partitions allow users to reconfigure a room to different sizes and shapes.

    However, teaching and learning are processes, not objects. A curriculum is a set of experiences that students and teachers go through together. At the university, these experiences are broken down into majors, minors, general education, which are further divided into individual courses. If we limit the discussion to a single course, then the curriculum for that course is the sum of all of the experiences that students and teachers in that course have with each other and with the ideas of the course.

    The teaching and learning processes are very individual. I think that most students don’t really learn very much from most of the courses they take in K-12 or at the university. If that is true, then teachers need to find better ways to get students to engage with each other, with the teacher, and with the ideas of the course. If UD can help with that, I’m all for it.

    But what I really think is that we need to figure our what works for each indivudual student. Therefore, I’m not sure it is possible to make a course truly universal. A teacher needs to deal with each individual student’s background knowledge, their opinions, their misconceptions, etc.

    I think it would be great if I could design a course that would work for every student that takes it. I just think that is a quixotic quest. Again, I am not against the goal. My goal is the same: to help every student learn. I just think that we need to make education more individual, not less.

    Finally, back to the original question. If the word curriculum refers simply to objects like textbooks, a syllabus, a WebCT course supplement, etc., then UD principles certainly apply, just as with buildings. A syllabus does no good if a student can’t read it or even access it. In my view, however, those objects are not the curriculum. If so, then we do not need schools and teachers—just sell or give those objects to people and let them do the courses on their own.

    In fact, this is why MIT has put most of their course objects on the web for free. The objects that can be placed on the web do not a curriculum make. If it were so, no one would bother actually going to MIT anymore. That is hardly the case, however.

    1. I agree with Nick that curriculum is a process, but there are artifacts of that process (both physical and intellectual) that are affected by design decisions. That is where the most difficulties arise, since those are the tangible objects with which students must interact in order to participate in the education experience. If you use UD principles when designing the experience, the artifacts are more likely to be universally consumable.

      When you tackle UD from the perspective of the Disability Resource Center, then you address issues that Melanie described. But you could easily tackle UD from an English-as-a-Second-Language perspective. What kind of design choices could you make to help remove language barriers for students who want to participate fully in the curriculum but are stymied because the curriculum is delivered in English? I’m not proposing we make all professors multi-lingual. That’s accommodation, just in the reverse. Instead, there are actual formatting choices a course designer could make that would make it easier for a student to both increase their second language vocabulary as well as translate the course into their own language. Again, it is easiest to use technology as part of this solution, and explore the different ways you can store information that makes it easier to internationalize.

      UD is about wanting to provide an individual experience, but wanting to do that for all students, instead of making design choices that limit success to students with certain abilities. I would rather have success limited to the amount of effort and skill a student and teacher bring to the experience. I would rather see us create experiences with multiple interaction points so that each student can fully participate in the process, no matter what capability or disability they bring to the interaction vortex. Your goal, Nick, is exactly what we’re talking about here. The idea behind UD for education is that instead of designing a curriculum [process] that only a few students can get anything out of, you broaden your scope to design a process that engages all students in an individual manner.

  13. I’d be interested in taking a course on this and related topics as a masters level class. Any plans to make such a thing happen?

  14. I applaud you, Daniel, for your passion for this paradigm shift. I, too, am an advocate of universal design and believe it can and should be implemented in our public and social arenas.

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