Burgstahler, S. (2007). Universal design in education: Facilities, information technology, instruction, and student services. Design for All, 2(5), 6-29.

Universal Design in Education: Facilities, Information Technology,
Instruction, and Student Services

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
University of Washington

Elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and with a wide range of language proficiency. Represented in most classes are many types of racial/ethnic backgrounds, ages, native languages, and learning styles, including visual and auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are included in regular courses at all educational levels. Their disabilities include blindness, low vision, hearing impairments, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, and health impairments.

While classrooms, courses, technology, and student services are typically designed for the average student, universal design in education (UDE) promotes the consideration of people with a broad range of characteristics in all educational products and environments. UDE goes beyond accessible design for people with disabilities to make all aspects of the educational experience inclusive for students, parents, staff, instructors, administrators, and visitors with a great variety of characteristics. These characteristics include those related to gender, race/ethnicity, age, stature, disability, and learning style.

Originally applied in the field of architecture and later to information technology, UD applications in education are relatively new (Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Bowe, 2000, Burgstahler, 2006c; DO-IT, 2006; Plinder & Johnson, 2004). It can provide a philosophical framework for the design of a broad range of educational products and environments. These include:

In this article the author defines UD, describes the process of universal design, and then shares applications of UD in educational settings-physical spaces, information technology, curriculum and instruction, and student services.

The Definition and Process of Universal Design

The term universal design was coined by the architect Ronald Mace, who challenged the conventional approach of designing for the average user and provided a design foundation for more accessible and usable products and environments. Mace and other visionaries developed the definition of UD used by The Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University: "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." An example of universal design is doors with sensors that make them automatically open for individuals walking with packages, those using wheelchairs, the elderly who experience weakness, parents pushing baby strollers, and workers using rolling carts to deliver products. The general definition of universal design has been tailored to many specific applications. For example, the Universal Smart Home Design has been described as "the process of designing products and housing environments that can be used to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages, abilities and physical disabilities." (Pisha, & Coyne, 2001b)

Universal design puts high value on both diversity and inclusiveness. UD is a goal. It is also a process that requires taking a macro view of the application being considered as well as a micro view of subparts of the application. A review of applications of universal design in a wide variety of settings, suggests that the following process can be used to apply universal design:

Universal Design of Physical Spaces

At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of products and environments (Connell, Jones, Mace, Mueller, Mullick, Ostroff, Sanford, Steinfeld, Story, & Vanderheiden, 1997). Listed below are the seven principles of universal design.

Universal design can be applied to specific educational environments (including dormitories, classrooms, student union buildings, libraries). It is important to ensure that classrooms, labs, workspaces, equipment and other products environments are physically accessible to and usable by students, instructors, staff, and visitors with a wide range of physical abilities. Nonessential physical effort should be minimized and options should be provided for the use of equipment, handles, locks, cabinets and drawers from different heights and by individuals with different physical abilities, with one hand, and who are right- and left-handed. Seating should be arranged to encourage participation and allow room for wheelchairs, personal assistants, and assistive technology. Signs should include large print and provide symbols as well as words to assist those who have a variety of primary languages. Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal at for more suggestions. For computing facilities, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/comp.access.html.

Universal Design of Information Technology (IT)

IT has the potential to level the playing field or further widen gaps in educational and career attainment between individuals who have disabilities (or are from other minority groups) and members of the majority. Design guidelines to assist computer manufacturers and software developers in creating products that are usable by a broad audience were developed by a group of professionals representing different stakeholder groups (Trace Center, n.d.; Vanderheiden & Vanderheiden, 1992). Each guideline, listed below, is phrased as an objective followed by examples of how the objective might be achieved.

Applications of these guidelines to IT have demonstrated that it is possible to create products that are simultaneously accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics. Software that allows a variety of font sizes to be used to display text provides an example of the universal design of (Freed & Rothberg, 2006). Consult the Knowledge Base of the National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT, http://www.washington.edu/accessit/) for guidance on how to make information technology accessible in educational settings.

The World Wide Web emerged in the 1990s and is used widely in educational settings. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops and maintains protocols used on the web to insure interoperability, is committed to universal design. As expressed by its inventor and director, "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed guidelines and checkpoints for the accessible design of websites. In 2001, the U.S. Access Board adopted much of the work of the WAI when it developed minimum accessibility standards for IT designed, procured, and used by federal agencies in response to the 1998 amendments of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Section 508 standards promote the flexibility goals of universal design and are used as guidelines by many states, educational institutions, and other organizations that are not directly covered by the legislation. Even so, IT companies rarely take the full spectrum of user diversity into account when they develop their products, unintentionally erecting barriers to their use by people with disabilities and others.

Universal Design of Curriculum and Instruction

The field of UD can provide a framework for the design of instruction and curriculum. Using the Center for Universal Design definition format, universal design of instruction can be defined as the design of instruction to be usable by all students, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. The Council for Exceptional Children elaborates as follows:

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has focused its efforts on universal design for learning (UDL), especially as it applies to technology-based curriculum. It defines UDL as, "a research-based set of principles that together form a practical framework for using technology to maximize learning opportunities for every student." UDL is applied when curriculum designers create products to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and learning styles and preferences. UDL draws on "brain research and media technologies to respond to individual learner differences. It reflects an awareness of the unique nature of each learner and the need to address differences." UDL curriculum offers:

In 1997 a meeting of researchers and product developers on universal design was convened by ERIC/OSEP Special Project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Participants stated "Publishers should prepare and teachers should select instructional materials that are supportive and inclusive of students who have wide disparities in their abilities to see, hear, speak, read, etc....(Orkwis & Mclane, 1998, p. 3-4) The group recommended the following first steps for curriculum developers and teachers.

Unfortunately, most educational software programs available today are not universally designed. Instead of including flexible features that provide access to students with disabilities, they erect barriers to the curriculum.

Universal design principles can be applied to the overall design of instruction as well as to specific instructional materials, facilities, and strategies such as lectures, classroom discussions, group work, Web-based instruction, labs, field work, and demonstrations. Universally designed curriculum provides students with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement (http://www.cast.org/). Listed below are examples of instruction that employ principles of universal design. They are organized under seven performance indicator categories, with a goal statement for each. They are based on a comprehensive literature review and formative feedback from stakeholder groups nationwide (Pisha & Coyne, 2001; Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003; Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998).

For details and a checklist for applying universal design to student services consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html.

Note that employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. For example, a sign language interpreter or real-time captioning may need to be provided for a student who is deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning assures full access to the content for most students and minimizes the need for special accommodations. For example, designing Web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class.

Accessible design of curriculum and instruction benefits students with disabilities but also benefits others. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to deaf students, is also a benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to those watching the tape in a noisy environment. Delivering content in redundant ways can improve instruction for students with a variety of learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Letting all students have access to class notes and assignments on a Web site benefits students with disabilities and everyone else. Planning ahead saves time in the long run.

Universal Design of Student Services

UD can be applied in order to make student services accessible and usable by all students. These services include computer labs, video and multimedia, libraries, recruitment and admissions, registration, financial aid, advising, career services, housing and residential life, tutoring and learning centers, and student organizations. When universal design is applied, services make everyone feel welcome, able to get to the facility and maneuver within it, able to access materials and electronic resources, and able to participate in events and other activities. Efforts should be made in the following areas. Planning, Policies, and Evaluation. Diversity issues should be considered in the planning and evaluation of services.

For details and a checklist for applying universal design to student services consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_ss.html.


Universal design holds promise for improving all aspects of the learning environment for students with disabilities at all academic levels. Ultimately, applying UD widely will benefit society by making academic and career opportunities available to more citizens and by enhancing professional fields with the perspectives of people with disabilities.

References and Resources

National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT). (n.d.).

Access Board. Section 508 (n.d.). Washington, D.C.: Author, http://www.section508.gov/

Adaptive Environments Center, Inc. (1995). ADA checklist for readily achievable barrier removal. http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/checkweb.htm

Bar, L., & Galluzzo, J. (1999). The accessible school: Universal design for educational settings. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.

Bowe, F.G. (2000). Universal design in education. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Burgstahler, S. (2006a). Equal access: Universal design of instruction. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2006b). Equal access: Universal design of student services. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2006c). Universal design in education: Principles and applications. DO-IT, Seattle: University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2006d). Universal design: Principles, process, and applications. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington.

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)/ (n.d.).

The Center for Universal Design. (n.d.). http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/

The Council for Exceptional Children (n.d.). http://www.cec.sped.org/osep/udesign.html

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (2006). Applications of universal design. Seattle: University of Washington.

Freed, G., & Rothberg, M. (2006). Accessible digital media? design guidelines for electronic publications, multimedia and the web. Boston: National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM).

Orkwis, R., & McLane, K. (1998). A curriculum every student can use: Design principles for student access. ERIC/OSEP Topical Brief. Reston, VA: ERIC/OSEP Special Project. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED423654).

Pisha, B., & Coyne, P. (2001) smart from the start: The promise of universal design for learning. Remedial and Special Education, 22(4), 197-203.

Pliner, S., & Johnson, J. (2004). Historical, theoretical, and foundational principles of universal design in higher education. Equity of Excellence in Education, 37,105-113.

Scott, S., McGuire, J., & Shaw, S. (2003). Universal Design for instruction: A new paradigm for adult instruction in postsecondary education. Remedial and Special Education, 24(6), 369-379.

Silver, P., Bourke, A., & Strehorn, K.C. (1998). Universal instructional design in higher education: An approach for inclusion. Equity & Excellence in Education, 31(2), 47-51.

Trace Center. (n.d.). Designing a More Usable World - for All. Madison, WI; University of Wisconsin-Madison, http://www.trace.wisc.edu/world/

Vanderheiden, G.C., & Vanderheiden, K.R. (1992). Guidelines for the design of consumer products to increase their accessibility to people with disabilities or who are aging (Working Draft 1.7). Madison, WI: Trace Research and Development Center.

World Wide Web Consortium. (n.d.). Web Accessibility Initiative, http://www.w3.org/WAI/


This article was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education (grant #P33A990042) and the National Science Foundation (cooperative agreement #HRD-0227995). However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume their endorsement. The contents of this article are edited and reproduced with permission from documents originally published at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Programs/ud, http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/instruction.html and http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/ud_edu.html.

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