Universal Design - Making Your Course Accessible to Everyone

Your responsibility is to include everyone in your audience.

When discussing Universal Design, most people think instantly of physical accommodations to buildings or other products that allow them to be more easily used by individuals with disabilities.  However, the principles of Universal Design extend far beyond this description. The purpose of Universal Design is to make everything from spaces and objects to information and services more accessible to everyone, and in so doing, make a more welcoming, accessible environment for all, and minimize the need for individual accommodations.

Course Planning

From the moment you, as a faculty member, begin preparing a course, you can begin incorporating principles of Universal Design in Instruction.  Many of these UDI principles you probably already utilize.  For example:

  • Providing students a syllabus at or prior to the beginning of the course allows them time to acquire materials in alternate formats if necessary, or to begin readings or assignments early. 
  • Adding a statement of welcome for individuals with disabilities, and a commitment to working out accommodations as needed helps build a welcoming environment in which students are  more likely to reach out for necessary help.  
  • Offering different forms of information delivery makes it more accessible to a range of students with different characteristics.
  • Providing opportunities for group and individual assignments and feedback can help accommodate a broad range of learning styles, and encourage exploration of different learning roles and methods.
  • Allowing students the chance to receive feedback on portions of large assignments before final due dates can help reduce the need for accommodations or time extensions on assignments
In planning out course activities, some other easy changes include:
  • Making your website user-friendly for students using screen reading software
  • Field trips to locations with both audio and visual resources and information
  • Selecting A/V resources with captions for in class activities
  • Selecting course materials and readings that are accessible, or available in alternate formats
Communication Tips

Similarly, there are some basic communication tips that you can include in your daily classroom experiences, syllabi, and resources to help smoothe the learning process for students with different disabilities.

  • Using specific language such as "three feet to the left" rather than "over there," can help orient students with visual impairments.
  • Repeating questions that are asked in class so that everyone can hear them, or verbally or visually identifying who is speaking can help students with hearing, visual or mobility impairments. 
  • Ensuring that all media information is captioned as appropriate.
  • Avoiding negative descriptions of a disability (ex: "uses a wheelchair" rather than "confined to a wheelchair") can help create a more welcoming, friendly environment.
  • Positioning yourself appropriately to communicate easily with persons that you are talking to.  

For a list of tips, or a checklist of what you can do to make your entire course accessible from syllabus to final grades, check out the Universal Design for Instruction Checklist for Inclusive Teaching.

Universal Design for Lectures

To truly incorporate UDI principles into lectures, speeches, or presentations, consider the following basic accommodations that may be built into your lecture to make it more accessible:

  • For people with mobility and orthopedic impairments: Make sure that your central aisle is clear of obstacles (including power cords and microphone cords) and will allow for free movement of a wheelchair or scooter. Make certain that there is adequate space for a wheelchair (2’ x 4’) with good sightlines for viewing and/or participating in class or lab. Consider removing a chair or two as needed to make space for wheelchair users to position themselves without blocking the main walking paths.
  • For people who are blind or who have vision impairments: Again, be certain that the center aisle is free of obstacles. Make handouts available in large print (use 18 pt. bold) or Braille if requested. Use clear, vivid, legible, high contrast handouts and transparencies. Make all of your transparencies available in electronic form or as handouts. The same applies for anything you write on the chalkboard. Try to refrain from using non-specific visual points of references or gestures when explaining key points or concepts (i.e., “as you can see here”). Adjust lighting when requested.
  • For people who are deaf or are hard of hearing: If sign language interpreter(s) are present, they will consult with you about where to position themselves in the classroom. Bear in mind that the interpreter is merely a vehicle for communication, and that you should always address deaf audience members directly. Make eye contact with the person who is deaf when he or she is signing, not the interpreter (even though the interpreter may be the one using voice). Try to control background noise as much as possible. Ask participants with questions or comments to speak in turn and not over one another. Always make certain to repeat questions asked of you.
  • For people who have learning impairments: Focus on providing material in a variety of ways to accommodate differences in learning styles between students.  Allow students to have options in how they show what they have learned (e.g. writing a paper, giving a speech in front of the class, preparing a multimedia presentation).  This can play to their strengths or provide an opportunity for improvement in difficult areas.  Provide multiple means of engagement; mix the class up a little.  Creating variety or allowing students to have some freedom in how they are taught can make it easier for students to connect to material and to see why it is important to them.
Additional information on Universal Instructional Design:

Universal Design of Instruction in Postsecondary Education

NC State Center for Universal Design

National Center on Universal Design Learning

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition