The term universal design (UD) originated in the mid-1980s from the architect Ronald Mace, who is internationally recognized for advancing the concept and design of barrier-free buildings for people with disabilities. 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 or specialized design

In 1997, Mace and his colleagues at North Carolina State University developed the seven principles of UD as follows -

  1. Equitable Use (design that does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users)
  2. Flexibility in Use (design that accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities)
  3. Simple, Intuitive Use (use is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level)
  4. Perceptible Information (the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities)
  5. Tolerance for Error (the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions)
  6. Low Physical Effort (the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue)
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use (the design is appropriate size and space)

A typical example of UD is the use of sliding doors that open automatically: not only does this feature benefit people who use wheelchairs, it facilitates entry for people pushing strollers, those carrying a load of heavy boxes, and those who might have difficulty opening a door or navigating a doorway. In short, universal design is good design, and good design applies to education as well as to architecture.


Universal Design in Education

Universal design in education means accounting for variability in learners when designing and delivering instruction. Universal design is proactive, rather than reactive, and it starts at the beginning stages of course design. Universal design in education reduces, but does not always eliminate, the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. However, just as UD benefits all users, UD in education aims to benefit all learners, not just those with disabilities. For example, providing visual cues (key words, charts, images) with an oral presentation not only helps students who have difficulty hearing the presenter, it helps students who process and remember visual information more effectively than auditory information, as well as students whose main language differs from the language of instruction. 

Around the year 2000, three universal design frameworks in education began to appear: Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Universal Instructional Design (UID), and Universal Design for Instruction (UDI).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework was developed by David Rose, Anne Meyer, and colleagues at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). This framework stemmed from the original goal of exploring how technology could be used to enhance education for students with disabilities. Over the years, Meyer and Rose have further refined UDL based on cognitive neuroscience research on how the brain learns. The UDL guidelines are: 1) Multiple Means of Engagement, 2) Multiple Means of Representation, and 3) Multiple Means of Action and Expression. In other words, UDL guides instructors to 1) use a variety of ways to motivate students, 2) communicate course content in various formats, and 3) use various types of assessment so students can show what they know.

Universal Instructional Design (UID)

Hofstra University special education and rehabilitation professor, Frank Bowe, was among the first to apply the seven universal design principles to education. Since then, the Open Learning and Educational Support University of Guelph has further enhanced the UID framework extensively and their UID materials are now widely used.

UID principles foster inclusiveness and equity by stating that instruction should: 1) be accessible and fair, 2) be straightforward and consistent, 3) provide flexibility in use, participation and presentation, 4) be explicitly presented and readily perceived, 5) provide a supportive learning environment, 6) minimize unnecessary physical effort of requirements, and 7) ensure a learning space that accommodates both students and instructional methods.

Universal Design for Instruction (UDI)

University of Connecticut professors, Sally Scott, Joan McQuire, and Stan Shaw, developed the Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) framework (Scott, McGuire, & Foley, 2003; Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003). Their UDI principles are based on UD principles as well as on Chickering and Gamson’s principles of good practice in undergraduate education (1987).  In addition to applying the original seven UD principles to education, the UDI model includes two additional principles: Principle 8 (A Community of Learners) promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and the instructor, and Principle 9 (Instructional Climate) promotes a welcoming and inclusive learning environment.

Universal Design in CTE Teaching Tip Sheets

Although these three frameworks vary slightly in how they present and apply the concept of universal design in education, they share the common goal of designing inclusive and equitable education that considers the needs of all learners. The tip sheets Universal Design: Course Design and Universal Design: Instructional Strategies are based on all of these frameworks.

Other CTE Tips Sheets

References and Resources

Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 3-7.

Scott, S.S., McGuire, J.M., & Foley, T.E. Universal Design for Instruction: A framework for anticipating and responding to disability and other diverse learning needs in the college classroom. Equity & Excellence in Education, 36(1), 40-49.

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

Ron Mace Human Centered Design

Center for Excellence in Universal Design, National Disability Authority

Universal Instructional Design. University of Guelph

Universal Instructional Design. Creating an Accessible Curriculum at the University of Victoria

UID Quick-Start Implementation Checklist

Universal Design for Learning

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: What is Universal Design? Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.