The Power of Universal Design in Education

Shawn BushDiversity Initiatives, Support, Teachers

Often, equitable and accessible practices and structures are implemented reactively. When oversights and missed opportunities for inclusion are identified, upgrades and changes are made to address the issues. In the last few decades, significant focus has shifted to proactively create environments, services, and products that consider diverse and individual needs. This approach is called Universal Design.

The term, “Universal Design” (UD), was first coined by an architect named Ron Mace in 1985. Mace described the concept as “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (UD Project 2022) In 1997, Mace and other architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers developed 7 principles of UD.

7 Principles of UD

These 7 principles of UD are:

  1. Equitable Use

The design is useful, safe, and equally available to people with diverse abilities.

  •  Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of design is easy to understand regardless of user, regardless of user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, and concentration level.

  • Perceptible information

Use of design communicates necessary information regardless of user’s sensory abilities and takes multi-modal approach to access.

  • Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and unintended adverse consequences.

  •  Low Physical Effort

The design can be used comfortably with minimum fatigue.

  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

The design’s size and space are conducive and accessible for people with various bodies, postures, and mobilities.

Universal Design and Education

Universal Design first was conceived for the fields of architecture, commercial products, and information technology (IT). Recently, there are newer applications of these concepts to education. Universal Design of Education has many applied uses, from how school buildings are designed to how daily curriculum is delivered and everything in between. While there are plenty of other avenues of support for diverse learners, such as Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), UDE is distinct because “unlike an accommodation for a specific person with a disability, the practice of UDE is proactive and benefits all students, including those who are not receiving disability-related accommodations and other services from the school.” (Burgstahler 2021)

Teachers Provide Options

On the lesson planning level, Universal design for learning (UDL) has been developed as “a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners and eliminates unnecessary hurdles in the learning process.” But how does that look in application? The Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation provides a few specific considerations:

  • Provide Options for Perception
    • Learners access information differently, so provide flexible and multiple ways to present information
    • Example: Use powerpoints or other visual representations as a supplement to an oral lesson or reading
  • Provide Options for Expression
    • Learners vary in their abilities to demonstrate their learning, so provide flexible and multiple ways to allow students to express their knowledge or demonstrate their skills
    • Example: Provide students with different modes to present a project or share out their comprehension of a text
  • Provide Options for Comprehension
    • Students are motivated to learn for different reasons and different types learning activities keep them engaged, so provide multiple ways for engaging in course activities
    • Example: Allow students to engage in learning through individual work, group work, games, and other activities

By incorporating Universal Design into their pedagogy, educators can create environments in which all students can access the material and demonstrate their knowledge. Whether it is in the construction of a large building, or the construction of a lesson plan, everyone benefits from intentional inclusivity and accessibility.