Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides useful guidelines for developing curricula, selecting materials and creating learning environments that consider the wide variability of learners in higher education environments. 

UDL is a set of principles that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone. It is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution but rather provides flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs. 

UDL is not a prescriptive checklist or formula with set methods and tools to be applied in every situation. It is meant to provide flexibility and allows for adjustments as needed. 

UDL can help reshape teaching and learning by guiding the design of an entirely new system with flexibility at its core. 

Institutions are required to provide accessible materials and technology to students but UDL does more than that by decreasing the need for individual accommodations to have to be implemented because these options are already built into the course. In other words, Courses that are created with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles are both accessible and usable for a broad audience and, therefore, minimize the need for accommodations.

Origin of universal design

Universal Design involves designing products and spaces so that they can be used by the widest range of people possible. Universal Design evolved from Accessible Design, a design process that addresses the needs of people with disabilities. Universal Design goes further by recognizing that there is a wide spectrum of human abilities. Everyone, even the most able-bodied person, passes through childhood, periods of temporary illness, injury and old age. By designing for this human diversity, we can create things that will be easier for all people to use. By designing for this diversity, we can create things that are more functional and more user-friendly for everyone. 

ADA accommodations versus universal design

The ADA outlines the bare minimum necessary in order to curb discrimination against people with disabilities, while Universal Design strives to meet the best practices for design, which are always evolving and improving as we continue to learn more about how to best meet people's different needs.

The ADA focuses solely on the civil rights of people with disabilities, while Universal Design is designed with everyone in mind.

Accommodations are a reactive process for providing access to specific students and arise from a medical model of disability, whereas, Universal Design for Learning is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach for different types of learners, regardless of disability affiliation.  

UDL is:

  • A change in the overall learning design
  • A universal way to accommodate all different learning styles
  • A way to provide students with more options in accessing, processing, and sharing information

UDL is not:

  • A set of steps
  • A “one size fits all” teaching method
  • An accommodation for use only when a student identifies themselves
  • A replacement for other learning/testing accommodations a student may request
Approaches for Accommodation vs. Universal Design
Accommodation ApproachUniversal Design Approach

The individual is the focus of the problem of access.

The learning environment is the locus of the problem of access.

Access is given retroactively.

Access is built into the course proactively.

Modification is only for the individual with a disability.

All students potentially benefit from inclusive design.

May require special treatment or separation from rest of students.

Less need for special treatment; greater integration

May require time to discuss and implement changes

Investment of time during design stage; plan may be tweaked after further experience.

Helpful tips

  • Create multiple ways for students to access course materials (printed, online, audio, etc.) 
  • Vary the way students participate in class and showcase their knowledge (variations of assignments, exams, presentations, video recordings, etc.) 
  • Offer ways of customizing the display of information, consider.
  • Displaying information in a flexible format so that the following perceptual features can be varied:  
    • The size of text, images, graphs, tables, or other visual content.
    • The contrast between background and text or image.
    • The volume or rate of speech or sounds that can be amplified.
    • The speed or timing of video, animation, sound, simulations, etc. 
  • All videos including supplemental material and lectures should be captioned. Transcripts of the video can also be provided. 
  • It is important to Use text equivalents in the form of captions or automated speech-to-text (voice recognition) for spoken language.
  • Provide visual diagrams, charts, notations of music or sound.
  • Provide American Sign Language (ASL) for spoken English. 
  • All readings and other course materials need to be accessible in multiple formats.  
  • Provide descriptions (text or spoken) for all images, graphics, video, or animations.
  • Provide auditory cues for key concepts and transitions in visual information.
  • Demonstration of knowledge should come from a variety of assignments such as quizzes/exams, papers, projects, discussion boards, etc. 
  • Please remember that there are many types of visual impairments. Students who are not blind might not use a screen reader but still have a visual processing disorder that prevents them from interacting with a material successfully.  
    • Ensuring that text is enlarged, background colors stand out, contrast is high, and content is outlined/bold so that there is a contrast from the rest of the background are simple strategies that can assist students in these cases. 
    • Ensure accessible PowerPoint presentations are provided or transcripts of notes discussed in class.
    • Provide a complete syllabus with deadlines and test dates the first day of class. Inform the students of any changes to the syllabus information both verbally and in writing.
    • Read all written instructions out loud and repeat instructions and deadlines more than once throughout the term.
    • Provide printed materials ahead of time and offer such in various formats such as enlarged or electronically.
    • Give students choices on how to present the material when appropriate.
    • Allow students the opportunity to work individually and collaboratively throughout the semester.
    • Create environments, physically and conceptually, that are welcoming, accessible, and conducive to the needs of a variety of learning styles.

Visit CAST for UDL Guidelines