What is Universal Design?
by Antonia Levy & Christopher Leydon

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word accessibility?

Ramps, designated bathroom stalls, closed captioned video, or maybe screenreading software? While these things allow people with physical disabilities or sensory impairments to use the school’s facilities, creating a truly inclusive institution involves more than making architectural adjustments or offering technological aids. It means building accessibility into all services we offer — including our website and the videos posted on it, online course sites and the documents posted on them, and even the forms used by admissions, financial aid, or human resources.

“What if there was a paradigm for higher education that would simultaneously address issues of equality, accessibility, social integration, and community? … What if it provided guidance for physical spaces, student services, and technology? Universal Design (UD) in higher education can do all this and more.” (Burgstahler 2008: 3)

Universal Design is a set of design principles originally developed for commercial products and architectural design with the intention to “design for all” beyond mere accommodations. Universal Design in Learning (UDL), which takes its inspiration from these principles, is now a widely used paradigm in education for more inclusive teaching and learning. The following table illustrates these principles with a few examples of how each applies to instructional and non-instructional contexts at institutions of higher education. (Click on table below to view full size file, or view Accessible PDF.)

CUNY SPS Blog - Table for UD Principles

(Table adapted from Burgstahler 2008: 14-16; UDL Online Project 2009.)

Implementing Universal Design means considering accessibility in every decision we make, and all of the tasks we perform. With UD, accessibility isn’t the icing on the cake, instead it’s baked right in.

This article kicks off a monthly series introducing Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Over the coming months we will cover each of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility — or inaccessibility. Catch you next month!

Questions or feedback? Email antonia.levy@cuny.edu or christopher.leydon@cuny.edu.


References:
Burgstahler, S. E. (2008). Universal Design in Higher Education. In S. Burgstahler & R. Cory (Eds.), Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, 3-20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

UDL Online Project. (2009). Examples of UDI in Online and Blended Courses. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

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