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Introduction to Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning

First, What Do We Mean by “Accessibility”?

An accessible product or service is one which can be used by all its intended users, taking into account their differing capabilities. Accessibility begins with understanding that a user’s ability to make inputs and perceive outputs may be atypical. The atypical ability can be either permanent or temporary and may be due to various physical, mental, or environmental conditions. A thoughtful, intentional approach to designing products and services attempts to remove barriers caused by the atypical ability.

In education, accessibility is primarily associated with the legal obligation to provide to students with disabilities reasonable accommodations that afford equal access to course content, learning activities, assessment, and other aspects of the learning experience. For instance, a student who is hard of hearing may be accommodated by supplying him or her with headphones that receive and amplify and instructor’s lecture. Or a student with dyslexia may be accommodated by being given additional time to take a test.

Throughout this web site, we most often use accessibility to refer to electronic accessibility, particularly in regard to online content and online courses. Our focus is upon the design, development, and delivery of digital material so that it is available and usable by a widely diverse range of students. For students with atypical ability, the challenge is to identify tools that provide the most convenient access to web-based information and other digital artifacts. For faculty and staff, the challenge is to remove the obstacles that prevent those accessibility tools from functioning effectively.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is an approach to the design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability, or situation.

Other terms for Universal Design used around the world include Design For All and Barrier-Free Design. Terminology and meanings differ from one country to another and often reflect each nation’s societal values. Significant cultural differences between countries have influenced how the movement has been adopted and evolved in each location, but the common goal of accessibility transcends national laws, policies, and practices.

Universal design is not a fad or a trend but an enduring design approach that originates from the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Universal design accommodates people with disabilities, older people, children, and others who are atypical, and it accommodates them in a way that is not stigmatizing and benefits all users. After all, stereo equipment labels that can be read by someone with low vision are easier for everyone to read; public telephones in noisy locations that have volume controls are easier for everyone to hear; and building entrances without stairs assist equally someone who moves furniture, pushes a baby stroller, or uses a wheelchair. Designing for a broad range of users from the beginning of the process can increase usability of an environment or product without significantly increasing its cost. It results in easier use for everyone and it reduces the need for design modifications later when abilities or circumstances change.

Universal design for learning builds on these principles while seeking to provide:

  • Multiple means of representation—to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Multiple means of action and expression—to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  • Multiple means of engagement—to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

Developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), the “Universal Design for Learning Guidelines” provide further elaboration of these basic principles.

How Does Universal Design Differ from Accessibility?

Universal design is not a synonym or a euphemism for accessibility standards. Universal design can be distinguished from meeting accessibility standards in the way that the accessible features have been integrated into the overall design. This integration is important because it results in better design and avoids the stigmatizing quality of accessible features that have been added on late in the design process or after it is complete, as a modification. Universal design also differs from accessibility requirements in that accessibility requirements are usually prescriptive whereas universal design is performance based. Universal design does not have standards or requirements but addresses usability issues.

Principles of Universal Design

The Principles of Universal Design, published in 1997 by the Center for Excellence in Universal Design, articulate the breadth of the concept and provide guidelines for designers.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

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

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

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

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Further Information

EDUCAUSE: 7 Things You Should Know About Universal Design for Learning

EDUCAUSE: 7 Things You Should Know About Information Technology Accessibility

The following 4-minute video from the Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence highlights UDL principles and discusses how to apply them in a higher education setting.

Video Transcript