What is Universal Design?

Universal design is an approach to the design of products, environments, and other usable entities that is usable by all people regardless of their age, size, dis/ability, etc., to the greatest extent possible, without specialized or additional adaptation.

Universal design was conceptualized by educator and architect Ron Mace, who considered that physical spaces could be proactively developed and constructed for all users' access, rather than having to be retroactively altered. While this concept first applied to mainly physical grounds and building, universal design is now an integral part of learning and instruction in all levels of education.

  • Some early examples of universal design include: sidewalk ramps; wheelchair-accessible restrooms; elevator placement.
  • More recent examples of conceptually based universal design include: diverse representation in company brochures; video captioning; posting classroom handouts and slides for all students on Blackboard.
  • Many faculty members also work to integrate principles of universal design into their course development and pedagogy; this manifests in universal design for instruction (UDI) and universal design for learning (UDL).
General Principles of Universal Design:
  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
    1. Example: A professor's Blackboard site is designed so that is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
    1. Example: A museum that allows visitors to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.
  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.
    1. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are easy to understand.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
    1. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions and audio description.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
    1. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
    1. Example: Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for everyone.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.
    1. Example: A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- or right-handed and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position.