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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the principles of Universal Design?

The principles of Universal Design (Connell et al., 1997) are:

  • Equitable use: Usable by people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use: Individual preferences and abilities are accommodated.
  • Simple and intuitive: Easy to understand.
  • Perceptible information: Information can be perceived in a range of environmental conditions and by people with differing sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error: Difficulties resulting from accidental or unintended actions are minimized.
  • Low physical effort: The design minimizes fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use: Space and equipment can be used by people with a wide range of physical characteristics and abilities.

How did Universal Design get started?

The Universal Design movement was founded by architect Ron Mace. In the 1970s, Mace developed the first code for building accessibility in the nation, and in 1989, he started the Center for Universal Design. (Center for Universal Design, 1998, para. 3). He was a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities, and he promoted the idea that products and built environments should be designed from the outset to be aesthetically pleasing and usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, regardless of ability (Center for Universal Design, 1998, para. 2)

What is Universal Design for Learning?

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) ( has been a leader in the movement to apply Universal Design to education; CAST uses the term Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to describe its work. The work of CAST addresses the need to redesign curriculum and text materials for greater accessibility. CAST has focused in particular on the many ways that technology can be used to increase the accessibility of texts used in the classroom. Recent developments in digital media and computer technology make it possible to provide each student with not only physical but cognitive access to the curriculum, by providing multiple representations of content (such as pictures, text, audio and video), transformation from one medium to another (text to speech or vice versa), and sensory enhancement of media (color, sound, font size). In addition, technology can allow students to use multiple means of expression, and provide an appropriate level of challenge for each student (Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2002).

While CAST’s UDL work focuses on uses of technology to apply Universal Design in learning environments, there are many other ways to apply the principles of Universal Design in educational settings.

How can Universal Design help students with disabilities gain access to the general curriculum?

Because each learner is unique, no single approach to teaching will work well for all students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 1997 (IDEA ’97) requires that individual strengths and needs be considered in the development of each student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP (IDEA ’97, §300.346). When classrooms and curricula are universally designed and offer flexibility to meet individual needs and preferences, students without IEPs are likely to benefit, and many students with IEPs will need fewer individualized accommodations.

How can Universal Design be applied to curriculum?

A model for applying Universal Design to curriculum was developed by Simmons and Kame’eniui (1996). They identified the following features:

  1. Big ideas. Curriculum emphasizes major concepts, principles, categories, rules, techniques, and hierarchical structures related to critical ideas and themes.
  2. Conspicuous strategies. Curriculum includes explicit instruction on steps to complete required tasks.
  3. Mediated scaffolding. Curriculum includes questioning, feedback and prompts.
  4. Strategic integration. Big ideas are explicitly linked within and across curricula.
  5. Judicious review. Previously taught content is reviewed and linked to applications.
  6. Primed background knowledge. New content is linked to and builds on students’ background knowledge.

How can Universal Design be applied to classrooms?

There are many ways in which the seven principles of Universal Design (Connell et al., 1997) can be applied to classrooms and other learning environments. Examples are shown in the table below (Bremer, Clapper, Hitchcock, Hall, & Kachgal, 2002).

Principles of Universal Design (Connell et al., 1997)

Equitable Use
Principle: "The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities."
Classroom Example: Students of all ability levels are appropriately challenged. Students with disabilities are neither segregated nor stigmatized, and privacy is respected.

Flexibility in Use
Principle: "The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities."
Classroom Example: Different learning styles are accommodated. Students can demonstrate knowledge through multiple means. Equipment allows left- or right-handed usage.

Simple and Intuitive
Principle: "Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level."
Classroom Example: Textbooks are available digitally and provide hot links to definitions of difficult words (click on the word and see a definition). Lab equipment has clearly labeled controls, with symbols as well as words.

Perceptible Information
Principle: "The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities."
Classroom Example: Students with sensory impairments can access materials in alternative formats. Texts are available in different formats and media; videos include captioning.

Tolerance for Error
Principle: "The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions."
Classroom Example: Students review each other’s work and make changes prior to grading. Computer programs offer hints to help students with difficult problems. Lab equipment is designed to minimize breakage.

Low Physical Effort
Principle: "The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue."
Classroom Example: Microscopes are connected to computer display screens. Lab equipment is physically easy to operate.

Size and Space for Approach and Use
Principle: "Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility."
Classroom Example: Classroom space is arranged to accommodate assistive devices and personal assistance. All students have a clear line of sight to the teacher and material being displayed.

Note: From Universal design: A strategy to support students' access to the general education curriculum (p. 3), by C. D. Bremer, A. T. Clapper, C. Hitchcock, T. Hall, and M. Kachgal, 2002. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. Reprinted with permission.

How can assessments be universally designed?

Universally designed assessments are intended to be both accessible and valid for the widest possible range of students. In order to develop a universally designed assessment, the entire test development process must incorporate aspects of Universal Design.

First, the purpose of the assessment must be clear, and the assessment should be designed specifically for that purpose. Test items should be designed to be usable with accommodations (for example, avoid using graphics that cannot be made available in Braille). A detailed discussion of universally designed large-scale assessments is available in Thompson, Johnstone & Thurlow (2002). Additional material on Universal Design of assessments is available on the Web site of the National Center on Educational Outcomes (

Why is it worth using universally designed assessments?

Using universally designed assessments has the obvious benefit of enabling all students to take the same test, thus simplifying interpretation of results. In addition, universally designed assessments can reduce the paper work needed to comply with the IDEA ’97 legislation provision §300.532(c)(2), which states:

If an assessment is not conducted under standard conditions, a description of the extent to which it varied from standard conditions (e.g., the qualifications of the person administering the test or the method of test administration) must be included in the evaluation report. (U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, 1999, Evaluation Procedures and Determination of Eligibility section, para. 4)

If only ordinary accommodations are needed, this documentation task is simplified.

What resources are available to help teachers and administrators develop or find universally designed curriculum?

Guidelines for improving curriculum accessibility are available on the Web sites of several organizations (see the Web Sites to Explore section of this Web topic).

Two companies have developed curricula designed to be accessible to students with physical disabilities through the use of computer technology. Intellitools ( has developed a set of math curricula that includes computer-based material accessible via a range of computer input devices. Don Johnston, Inc. ( offers Write:OutLoud and the CAST eReader, both of which were developed using Universal Design principles.


Bremer, C. D., Clapper, A. T., Hitchcock, C., Hall, T., & Kachgal, M. (2002). Universal design: A strategy to support students' access to the general education curriculum. Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. Retrieved from

Center for Universal Design (1998). History: Ronald L. Mace, FAIA, 1941-1998. Retrieved from

Connell, B.R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., et al. (2008). The principles of universal design. Retrieved from

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Technical Brief: Access, participation, and progress in the general curriculum. Peabody, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved from

Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-17, § 300.346 (1997).

Thompson, S. J., Johnstone, C. J., & Thurlow, M. L. (2002). Universal design applied to large scale assessments (Synthesis Report 44). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved from

U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (1999). IDEA '97 provisions of special interest to administrators: Topic brief. Retrieved from

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