Universal Design in the Classroom and Computer Lab

Access to quality instruction, including that delivered using information technology promotes positive academic and career outcomes for students with disabilities. But, how can instructional activities and products be designed to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design can provide a framework for the design of inclusive environments in the classroom and the computer lab.

Universal Design

Designing any product or service involves the consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, functional options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. Typically, products and activities are designed for the average user. In contrast, "universal design" is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation (The Center for Universal Design, 1997). For example, a standard door is not accessible to everyone. If a large switch is installed in a convenient location, the door is accessible to more people, including some wheelchair users. However, applying universal design principles could lead to the installation of sensors that signal the door to open when anyone approaches, making the facility accessible to everyone, including a small child, a man in a wheelchair with no hand/arm function, a weak elderly woman, a man using a walker, a person carrying a large box. Similarly, sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to wheelchair-users, are actually more often used by children on skateboards, delivery staff with rolling carts and parents with baby strollers.

Applications in the Classroom

Typically, access for students with disabilities to a specific classroom activity or educational product is considered after the activity or product has been developed. At this point in the process, access options are often limited and unsatisfactory. More accessible activities and products are created when universal design principles are applied in early stages of the design process (Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Bowe, 2000; Burgstahler, 2001; CAST, 2002). Following is a definition of universal design of instruction developed by the Council for Exceptional Children:

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.

Universal design principles can be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, Web-based instruction, labs, fieldwork, and other academic activities and materials. They allow for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. Listed below are examples of instructional methods that employ principles of universal design (Burgstahler, 2001). They make course content and activities accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

  1. Inclusiveness. Create a classroom environment that respects and values diversity. Encourage students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any student. Respect the privacy of all students.
  2. Physical Access. Assure that classrooms, labs, and fieldwork are accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities. Make sure equipment and activities minimize sustained physical effort, provide options for operation, and accommodate right- and left-handed students as well as those with limited physical abilities. Assure the safety of all students.
  3. Delivery Methods. Alternate delivery methods, including lecture, discussion, hands-on activities, Internet-based interaction, and fieldwork. Make sure each is accessible to students with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, interests, and previous experiences. Face the class and speak clearly in an environment that is comfortable and free from distractions. Use multiple modes to deliver content. Provide printed materials that summarize content that is delivered orally.
  4. Information Access. Use captioned videotapes. Make printed materials available in electronic format. Provide text descriptions of graphics presented on Web pages. Provide printed materials early to allow students to prepare for the topic to be presented. Create printed and Web-based materials in simple, intuitive, and consistent formats. Arrange content in order of importance.
  5. Interaction. Encourage different ways for students to interact with each other and with you. These methods may include in-class questions and discussion, group work, and Internet-based communications. Strive to make them accessible to everyone, without accommodation.
  6. Feedback. Provide effective prompting during an activity and feedback after the assignment is complete.
  7. Demonstration of Knowledge. Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. For example, besides traditional tests and papers, consider group work, demonstrations, portfolios, and presentations as options for demonstrating knowledge.

Applications in the Computer Lab

Information technology for which universal design principles have been applied minimize the need for assistive technology and are compatible with commonly used assistive hardware and software (DO-IT, 2002). Below are a few examples of accessible electronic and information technology that highlight its benefits to students with disabilities in educational settings.

These and countless other examples demonstrate the important roles electronic and information technology can play as young people with disabilities pursue postsecondary education and careers. First, they realize the same benefits as individuals without disabilities - they write articles, develop spreadsheets, access Internet-based resources and services, work side-by-side with their peers. In addition to these benefits, however, some people with disabilities use technology as compensatory tools, which allow them to do things that are otherwise impossible because of their disabilities. For example, technology can provide a voice for those who cannot speak in the customary way; can allow people to "write" even though they do not have functional use of their hands; and can make it possible for individuals to use the telephone even though they do not have the ability to hear.

In the school computer lab, access to hardware, software, and documentation is critical. In addition, the facility itself should be designed with universal access in mind. For example, the lab should include an adjustable table for each type of workstation, wrist/forearm rests, trackballs in addition to mice, wide and uncluttered aisles, and signs with high contrast and large print. Commonly used assistive technology, such as software to enlarge on-screen images, should be readily available. In addition, policies and procedures should be developed to assure a quick response to the need for assistive technology by specific students. (Burgstahler, 2003; Burgstahler, 2002).


Designing inclusive environments that are accessible to everyone, with and without disabilities, minimizes the need for individual accommodations. Employing the universal design approach to the development of educational activities and products, including information technology, is a critical step towards ensuring that students with disabilities have full access to programs and activities in the school, workplace, and community. Ultimately, making all educational and employment opportunities accessible to people with disabilities will strengthen our economy and create a level playing field for everyone.


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: Teaching nontraditional students. Westport, CT.: Bergin & Garvey.
Burgstahler, S. (2003). Equal access: Computer labs. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/comp.access.html
Burgstahler, S. (2002). The role of technology in preparing youth with disabilities for postsecondary education and employment. A white paper developed for the Postsecondary Outcomes Network of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii. Available http://staff.washington.edu/sherylb/
Burgstahler, S. (2001). Universal design of instruction. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/instruction.html
CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology). (2002). Universal design for learning. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.cast.org/udl/.
The Center for Universal Design. (1997). What is universal design?, Raleigh, NC: Author. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/newweb/about_ud/aboutud.htm
Connell, B.R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., Sanford, J., Steinfeld, E., Story, M., & Vanderheiden, G. (1997). The principles of universal design. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, Center for Universal Design. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/newweb/about_ud/udprinciples.htm
DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). (2002). Accessible electronic and information technology: An on-line tutorial. Seattle: Author. Retrieved January 4, 2003, from http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/aeit.html

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last modified: Wed Mar 20 09:23:26 2002