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Project PACE

Universal Design

Universal design is a concept that has emerged from the architectural field and is now being applied in other arenas such as instruction. The term “universal design” was defined by the team of architects, environmental researchers, engineers and product designers who are credited with its origin. They define universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” This same team of professionals developed a set of seven principles which guide designers in the development of products and environments to maximize usability and accessibility.

The Principles of Universal Design

  • Equitable Use - The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in Use - The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • 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.
  • Perceptible Information - The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for Error - The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low Physical Effort - The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use- Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Source: North Carolina State University, Center for Universal DesignElaine’s video here soon.

Many of us recognize that architectural features designed to benefit people with disabilities are advantageous to everyone. Lowered water fountains, for example, allow children to get a drink without assistance. Ramps are more convenient when we are pulling luggage or moving equipment. The same phenomenon has occurred with newer technology. Cell phones equipped to send digital messages provide accessibility for people who are deaf, but are also convenient if you are in a meeting or in a noisy environment. These are examples of the principles of universal design in action.

More recently, efforts are being made to develop and apply this concept in educational settings. One of the pioneers of this effort was Frank Bowe (1947 - 2007) . In his book, Universal Design in Education, he defines universal design as it applies to the educational setting as “the preparation of curriculum, materials and environments so that they may be used appropriately and with ease, by a wide variety of people.” Many educators have embraced the concept of universal design because its application enhances instruction for all students. It changes the emphasis from “special features for a few” to “good design for many.” Chris’ video to go here soon.

Adopting universal design as a framework within which to plan our services, construct physical spaces, deliver instruction, and organize academic programs will result in a more welcoming and inclusive campus climate.

Universal Design and Disability Services

The accommodation model of disability services is currently the most prevalent model in the postsecondary setting. Many disability service professionals would defend this model as a social model approach. When we explore it closely and compare it to the universal design approach, it is clear that it is more aligned with medical model thinking.

Accommodation Approach

Universal Design Approach

Access is a problem for the individual and should be addressed by that person and the disability service program Access issues stem from an inaccessible, poorly designed environments and should be addressed by the designer
Access is achieved through accommodations and/or retrofitting existing requirements The system/environment is designed, to the greatest extent possible, to be usable by all
Access is retroactive Access is proactive
Access is often provided in a separate location or through special treatment Access is inclusive
Access must be reconsidered each time a new individual uses the system, i.e. is consumable Access, as part of the environmental design, is sustainable
Source: AHEAD Universal Design Initiative Team

This realization, for many disability service providers, results in a recognition that a paradigm shift must occur in the DS office before it can occur across the campus. One way to approach this paradigm shift is to engage in a strategic planning process.

Internet Resources

Reframing Disability: Desegregation in Higher Education: Applications of Universal Design
Chris Lanterman, Northern Arizona University
AHEAD Universal Design Initiative
Adaptive Environments
Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)
Colorado State University - Access Project
Disability Law Resources Project, IT Toolbox for UD
Global Universal Design Educators Online News
North Carolina State University, Center for Universal Design
The Ohio State University - Fast Facts for Faculty: Universal Design for Learning
The Ohio State University - Faculty and Administrator Modules in Higher Education (FAME)
Sonoma State University, ENACT
Springfield Technical College, Project UDL
Universal design for access into science, technology, engineering and math.
Trace Research and Development Center
Universal Design in Education: Teaching Non-Traditional Students
University of Connecticut, FacultyWare
University of Guelph, Universal Instructional Design
University of Minnesota, PASS IT
University of Massachusetts/Boston and the University of New Hampshire, Equity and Excellence in Higher Education
University of Washington, Universal Design of Instruction (DO-IT)


These titles are available in the Project PACE resource library.

  • Bowe, F. G. (2000). Universal Design in Education: Teaching nontraditional students. Bergin & Garvey.
  • Curriculum Transformation and Disability. (2000). CTAD Workshop Facilitator’s Guide. University of Minnesota.
  • Erlandson, R. F. (2007) Universal and Accessible Design for Products, Services, and Processes. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  • Hodge, B. and Preston-Sabin, J. (1997) Accommodations - Or Just Good Teaching? Praeger Publishers. Westport, Connecticut.
  • McTighe, J. and Wiggins, G. ASCD College Textbook Series. (1998) Understanding by Design. Prentice Hall, Inc. New Jersey.
  • Rose, D. H. and Meyer, A. (Eds.) (2006) A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Rose, D. H. and Meyer, A. (2002) Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Zeff, R. “Universal Design Across the Curriculum”. In Glickman and White, Eds., Managing for Innovation. New Directions for Higher Education Number 137 (Spring 2007), published by Jossey-Bass. pages 27-44.
  • “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?
    Gloria Steinem

Updated 6.10.2009