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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Universal Design

What does Universal Design for Learning mean? Does it mean that a student with a disability will be able to access 75% of the course material without difficulty? Or that a student with a disability will be able to access 99% of the course material but will need to put forth twice as much effort as his/her non-disabled peers? In the perfect world, accessibility means that all students will have 100% equal access to all course materials without needing to ask for anything special.

The basic principle of Universal Design is that what works well for a wide variety of people with various functional abilities works better for everyone. “Universal Design is the design of products, environments, and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design.” (Institute for Human Centered Design, n.d.). While it may not be possible to eliminate auxiliary aids and services in educational programs in which students who are deaf or hard of hearing are involved, learning environments can be more inclusive and accessible.

Resources for Understanding Universal Design in Education

multicolored handsUniversal Design (UD) began as an approach for designing accessible physical environments and products, but has grown into a much larger concept including approaches to curriculum development and implementation. Utilizing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines and Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) Principles can greatly impact learning for all students, not just those with disabilities.

The National Center on Universal Design for Learning is an informative source for taking a UD approach to curricula. “The UDL Guidelines can assist anyone who plans lessons/units of study or develops curricula (goals, methods, materials, and assessments) to reduce barriers, as well as optimize levels of challenge and support, to meet the needs of all learners from the start” (CAST, 2011). UDL Guidelines are based on and expanded from three main principles: 1) provide multiple means of representation, 2) provide multiple means of action and expression, and 3) provide multiple means of engagement. From each of these principles, guidelines are detailed in specific checkpoints to guide curriculum development. For example, under the principle of providing multiple means of representation,there is a guideline of perception with a checkpoint to offer alternatives for auditory information, explaining the benefits and limitations in this area of instruction and offering suggestions for alternative methods. The website offers extensive resources for understanding and implementing UDL, from policies and practices to designing courses.

The Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability at the University of Connecticut advocated for more accessible learning environments by expanding on the original seven Principles of Universal Design, tailoring the definitions and examples to educational instruction, and adding two principles (a community of learners and instructional climate). This resulted in the nine Principles of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) (Shaw, Scott, & McGuire, 2001). This work was expanded to include blended and online learning environments. Resources are included in the UDI e-Toolbox, which “features e-Tools that faculty, as the course designer, can select and incorporate into course planning, content delivery, and assessment of learning outcomes to implement Universal Design for Instruction©” (Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, n.d.).

Whether classes are online or on campus, taking a UD approach increases learning for all students. Both websites – The National Center on Universal Design for Learning and the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability’s UDI Online – are helpful resources to better understand and execute flexible and proactive strategies in educational settings.

Universal Design: Online Learning

female student working on laptopOnline classes can take on a variety of modalities and functionalities. They can be fully online and asynchronous, or traditional classroom meetings with an online component, or any combination of synchronous/asynchronous and face-to-face/online. It is difficult to know exactly what to expect when a student signs up for an “online” class, which can make accommodations tricky. In general the goal is that a student who is deaf or hard of hearing taking an online class should have the same level of access as all students.

Many online classes are increasing the amount of audio and video content in the delivery of information. To make this content accessible, it should contain time synced, verbatim captions. Institutions will want to establish a protocol for captioning class material and work with faculty to ensure accessibility. Whenever possible, all audio and video content should be captioned at the beginning of the course. If content is added during the course, faculty will need to allow time for captions to be added before posting.

Some online classes may have a synchronous component with video lecture or text-based discussion. For these situations, an interpreter or speech-to-text provider could be needed to provide realtime access. If the video or audio lecture is then archived for the class, it will need to be captioned so that the recording is accessible as well.

Because online classes can be so varied, it is important to communicate with the student and professor throughout the process. Before the class starts, meet with the professor and student to discuss the format and content of the course, and then strategize what accommodations will be most effective for various components. During the course, check in to make sure access is occurring and there are no problems. After the class, use what was learned to make future classes accessible. Making classes accessible in the design phase will save time, money, and effort.

Universal Design: Face-to-Face Learning

students working on computers in classroomWhen you watch a football team huddle up, they are using a method that was developed by signing football players to ensure that the other team wouldn’t be able to see their plans for their next play. This is an example of Universal Design (UD), where steps are taken to include everyone, including people with disabilities.

There are many UD approaches that work well for including students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

When showing videos or other media in the classroom, captions provide access to students who are deaf or hard of hearing but also benefit others in the class. One study showed that 80% of people who use captions do so for reasons other than hearing loss, such as those whose first language isn’t English and those with learning disabilities. Captions benefit everyone when the language is highly technical or if the enviornment is noisy. Additionally captions are advantageous to individuals with minor or undiagnosed hearing loss (Office of Communications, 2006).

Because students who are deaf or hard of hearing rely upon their eyes to obtain information, lighting can be very important. Reducing backlighting by drawing blinds, ensuring that there is adequate light by turning on lights, or using “soft” lighting all can make for a more pleasant and effective learning environment for everyone.

A recent New York Times article about Netflix mentioned the culture of excellence and innovation. One executive there developed a style of meeting room “like a tiny coliseum,” a small circular room with three tiers of seats, “allowing everyone to easily see everyone else.” Circular seating allows students who are deaf or hard of hearing to more easily view other students, even if accommodations like interpreters or real-time captioning are being used (Nocera, 2016, June 15).

There are many minor adjustments that can be made that allow for greater inclusion in a classroom, and often these adjustments benefit everyone, not just the student with a disability.


CAST. (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines

Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability. (n.d.). e-Toolbox. Retrieved from http://udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/e-toolbox

Institute for Human Centered Design. (n.d.). History of Universal Design. Retrieved from http://humancentereddesign.org/universal-design/history-universal-design.

Nocera, J. (2016, June 15). Can Netflix survive in the new world it created?. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/magazine/can-netflix-survive-in-the-ne...

Office of Communications. (2006). Television access services review of the code of guidance. Retrieved from http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/accessservs/summary.

Shaw, S., Scott, S., & McGuire, J. (2001). Teaching college students with learning disabilities. ERIC Digest #e618. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children. Retrieved from http://www.eric.org/digests/e618.html