Universal Design (UD)

Ronald Mace, an architect, coined the term universal design in 1985 and envisioned it as an explicit approach to design that emphasized accessibility. Mace described universal design 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). One of the main ideas around Universal Design is proactivity — explicitly considering your users before you actually design something, and not after the fact.

The seven principles of universal design are (1) equitable use, (2) flexibility in use, (3) simple and intuitive, (4) perceptible information, (5) tolerance for error, (6) low physical effort, and (7) size and space for approach and use.

At its core, universal design began as an architectural movement as a way to address the barriers and exclusion people with disabilities encounter. As the movement for barrier-free design developed, “it also became apparent that many of the environmental changes needed to accommodate people with disabilities actually benefited everyone” (Center for Universal Design, 1997).

In the context of learning, universal design would then mean that students are able to participate in their learning experiences and demonstrate their learning without barriers. For educators, universal design requires us to begin our course design and teaching process with disability and access in mind. This proactivity is a critical component, as retrofits — changes made after the fact — do not represent true access for students.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning was adapted from the principles and ideas of universal design in the architectural field and consumer marketplace. The UDL framework is an educational framework based on research in learning science. It was developed by David Rose at Harvard in the 1990s.

Three Principles

UDL is centered on three principles to support learning:

  1. Multiple means of engagement: Stimulate interest and motivation for learning in different ways.
  2. Multiple means of representation: Present information and content in a variety of ways.
  3. Multiple means of expression: Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.

The use of ‘multiple’ pushes us to go beyond a singular understanding of our students. As Dolmage (2015) states, “‘multiple’ tells us that there is not just one, nor can there be singular favored ways of representing, expressing, or engaging — and that is an impetus to view students in a radically broader and more empowering way.”

Below are some brief descriptions about the principles including some examples for use in teaching and learning contexts. Strategies for implementing UDL in your teaching are highly dependable on context and while it may be tempting to view UD and UDL as a checklist of sorts, this can reduce the broader vision of UD/UDL as a form of activism toward making spaces more accessible for people with disabilities. Jay Dolmage’s (2015) “Universal Design: Places to Start” is a must read to contextualize UD/UDL and explore a large inventory of starting places for implementing UD. It is also important to note that a teaching strategy informed by UDL might work for one student (e.g., using visuals to represent content) but be completely inaccessible for another. Therefore, understanding that UDL is not a comprehensive fix for everything that is inaccessible in your classroom is essential as you begin to implement changes in your teaching. Keeping open lines of communication with your students is also essential — actively involving students as you implement changes and receive their feedback is critical.

Multiple Means of Engagement

Multiple means of engagement corresponds with the why of learning or the motivation for learning. It is how students can be engaged, stay motivated, be challenged, and get excited about learning. We know, however, that students are going to be engaged and motivated in different ways. UDL proposes that if we can provide multiple means of engagement — multiple means or ways for students to stay motivated and be challenged — we are going to be able to collectively engage a larger group of students overall. For example, some learners are motivated and engaged to complete a task if they know why it is important. As an instructor, you can spend time explicitly articulating the relevance for tasks that you assign or help draw connections between course readings and materials.

Multiple Means of Representation

We know that there is no single way of presenting information that will be optimal for all of our students. Providing various ways for students to access and acquire knowledge is one way toward greater accessibility within teaching and learning contexts. Focusing on multimodal information and content is a great way to start. Ask yourself, “how can I represent information in different ways whenever possible?” Multiple means of representation is not just for our teaching content and it is important to think of the different ways that we can represent other information pertinent to our courses. For example, can you create a video of yourself explaining assignment instructions that can be posted with the written assignment instructions?

Multiple Means of Expression

Students differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. Therefore, we want to offer learners choice in how they demonstrate what they have learned. Using a variety of evaluation methods to allow students to express what they know in multiple ways is beneficial. When designing assessments, ask yourself, “are there different ways that students can express what they know in different formats that is still acceptable and meets all the outcomes?” This can also refer to a particular evaluation method in and of itself. If you have a test, can you provide different types of questions e.g., multiple choice, matching, short answer, essay questions. You may also want to give students, where possible, the opportunity to choose the format of their work. For example, could a written assignment also include the option of submitting a video presentation instead? If you cannot give students the possibility of choice for format of their work, can you give them a choice of topic? Allowing students more choice in expressing what they know will create more engaged and motivated learners in your courses.

UDL and Disability

UDL is often pitched as an instructional framework that is essential for some students but beneficial for all. This kind of ‘for all’ framing is problematic and divorces universal design from its disability roots. Critics of this ‘for all’ framing have noted that it can lead to something called ‘interest convergence’ — “the idea that conditions change for minorities only when the changes can be seen (and promoted) as positive for the majority group as well” (Dolmage, 2005). The concept of ‘added value’ of UD/UDL for non-disabled students often serves as a selling point for UD/UDL within higher education discourses. As educators, we should be wary of discourses that erase the disability experience from a design framework that developed precisely as a reaction to the exclusion of disabled users from their environments. As Hamraie (2013) cautions us, “positioning UD as benefitting ‘other people’, in addition to disabled people, contributes to the impression that valuable design requires utility for nondisabled people in order for its creation to be justified.”

In an educational context, ‘added value’ and ‘for all’ framing of UD decenters students with disabilities from pedagogical decisions. Not only does this erase disability experience altogether in the context of UD/UDL, but the ‘for all’ framing can also prevent students from identifying barriers they are still encountering if they have been told a teaching and learning environment has been designed with ‘all students’ in mind (Gagné, 2021). As Dolmage (2015) writes, “this hollows out the potential for disability as a valued and agentive identity in the classroom: universal design becomes a way to erase disability together.”

Summary/Key Takeaways

Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning are helpful frameworks for rethinking how we can make our teaching and learning contexts accessible for students with disabilities. Keeping in mind that every pedagogical decision and strategy needs to be grounded in context, UD/UDL encourages us to proactively think about accessibility and inclusion/exclusion before we design a course, an instructional activity, an assessment, and more.

Additional Resources


  • Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels.


Center for Universal Design – NC State University College of Design

Dolmage, J. (2005). Disability studies pedagogy, usability and universal design. Disability Studies Quarterly, 25(4).

Dolmage, J. (2015). Universal design: Places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2).

Gagné, A. (2021, October 28). Accessibility framing and “for all” discourse. OLT Faculty Development, OLT. https://www.oltfaculty.com/post/accessibility-framing-and-for-all-discourse

Hamraie, E. (2013) Designing collective access: A feminist disability theory of universal design. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4).

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