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Introduction to Universal Design

Introduction to Universal Design for Learning
by Bridget M. de la Garza

Universal Design

Universal Design is a concept that is not new. It is an approach familiar to architects, engineers, product designers and others who recognize the practicality as well as social, legal, and economic sense of designing spaces and products which are "universally" beneficial. Universal design has been defined 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" (The Center for Universal Design, 2001). A classic example of universal design is the automatic door opener. Not only does this device benefit persons using wheelchairs, but it is also useful to people pushing baby strollers or carts or holding packages. Young children and older persons also benefit from this feature.

Universal Design for Learning

The terms "Universal Design for Learning" or "Universal Instructional Design" are used when the concept of universal design has been applied to learning. Essentially, universal design for learning provides an academic counterpart to the automatic door opener, by reducing the barriers students experience in accessing learning. Universal design for learning is "an approach to designing course instruction, materials, and content to benefit people of all learning styles without adaptation or retrofitting" (Ohio State University Partnership Grant, 2001). Universally designed instruction benefits all students including typical students, students with disabilities, English language learners, distance learners, and older students. The seven principles of Universal Design for Learning are:

  1. Identify the course content;
  2. Clearly express the essential content and any feedback given to the student;
  3. Integrate natural supports for learning, i.e., using resources already found in the environment;
  4. Use a variety of instructional methods when presenting material;
  5. Allow for multiple methods of demonstrating understanding of essential course content;
  6. Use technology to increase accessibility; and
  7. Invite student to meet/contact the course instructor with any questions or concerns (Ohio State University Partnership Project, 2001).

What Universal Design for Learning is not:

  • Universal design for learning is not the same as an academic accommodation for a student with a disability. Accommodations such as extended time on a test or a sign language interpreter are services that students with identified disabilities are qualified to receive according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. For more on the differentiation between Universal Design for Learning and academic accommodations for students with disabilities, refer to Session 3 of this training module.
  • Universal design does not lower academic standards, render a course less academically challenging, or make students less responsible for their learning.
  • Universal design does not place a greater burden for student learning on the instructor, although it does require thoughtful consideration in identifying essential course content and applying universal design principles.

Applying Universal Design to College Courses

How can college faculty apply universal design to their courses? Without realizing it, most are already doing so to a certain extent because universal teaching is, arguably, a combination of good teaching, common sense, and the intention of make one's teaching accessible to all students.

In this module, a model for revisiting one's course and instruction is presented. A menu of specific tips for applying universal design to all aspects of your course is provided. You will also have the opportunity to review your courses and instructional strategies to identify possibilities for more closely aligning them with the principles of Universal Design.