Universal Design: An Accessibility Philosophy that Helps Everyone

Thank you to Howard Kramer from the University of Colorado-Boulder for this interview on Universal Design’s power to assist those with accessibility needs…and to benefit everyone else in a course. Howard is a cofounder of the annual Accessing Higher Ground Conference: Accessible Media, Web & Technology. Thank you to Howard for agreeing to add this interview to WCET’s month focused on accessibility issues…and to Sheryl Burgstahler for sharing her expertise.
Russ Poulin

With WCET’s focus on accessibility for the month of September, I thought it timely to discuss the concept of Universal Design and how it can be applied to online education. This recalled a recent interview I conducted with Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, the Director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington and an expert in Universal Design in Education. She also is the director of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and other funders to offer outreach to other post-secondary institutions, K-12 teachers, technology companies, and students with disabilities. DO-IT increases the success of people with disabilities, particularly in high tech fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Photo of a curb cut on the side of a road and through a median.

Curb cuts are an example of universal design that helps more than just the physically challenged.

Universal Design incorporates accessibility in its approach but aims to go further by considering the diversity of audiences from the beginning of the design of a website, environment, product, or course. Since Universal Design takes a more proactive approach to accessibility I thought it would be useful to review some of the key points from my recent conversation with Dr. Burgstahler. The interview with Dr. Burgstahler will be followed with some suggested resources for both course accessibility and accessibility to electronic resources in the post-secondary environment.

Defining Universal Design…

Howard Kramer: I gave a very brief introduction on Universal Design. For those who may have never heard of the term, can you describe what Universal Design is and how it’s implemented in higher education?

Sheryl Bergstahler: Let me start with a basic definition. But, pause for a minute—so what is the typical way that we provide access to students with disabilities, particularly at post-secondary institutions but specifically in online learning? We tend to provide accommodations. Which means a student with a disability will provide documentation that shows they have a certain disability and they’ll request an accommodation in an online learning class or an onsite class to make it more accessible to them.

This might involve a sign language interpreter, taking inaccessible files and converting them to accessible format, providing extra time on tests, and so forth.  So that’s the typical approach.  We look at the individual with a disability, we determine what their functional limitations are, and then we adjust the class or the facility or whatever so that they have access.

In contrast, Universal Design is the development of products and environments that are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for an adaptation or a re-design. When universal design is applied to education, it takes the form of developing educational products, such as curriculum and environments like an online class or a science lab, that are usable by people, primarily students, but could be faculty and staff as well… usable by everyone without the need for re-design or some type of an adaptation or accommodation.

So, you can see it’s a proactive approach to access rather than the reactive approach seen with the accommodation model. Universal Design can be applied to any product or environment in postsecondary education or any other educational program.

Universal Design Helps Everyone

Howard: Key to Universal Design is that there are different types of learners. Can you explain this and also how Universal Design for Education aims to address this diversity?

Sheryl: What we’re talking about today is primarily universal design in an instructional setting.  And there a central characteristic of universal design: you provide multiple ways to gain knowledge, multiple ways to demonstrate that you have knowledge according to the topics in a class, multiple ways to interact, and so forth.  You have multiple ways to do things and to show that you have learned whatever the content is in the class.

An example of a Universal Design feature is captioning videos. Offering video content in an online class can provide another way to gain knowledge – by listening and viewing a video in addition to reading printed material. But if you don’t caption the videos, then it’s not accessible to some people in your course, such as students who have hearing impairments. Once you caption your video, then you’ll see it not only benefits someone who’s deaf but it benefits someone where English is not their first language. It benefits someone who just wants to see the spelling of a technical word you might be using, or people whose written understanding of English is better than their verbal comprehension, and those that have audio processing issues that make it better for them to access content in writing. So, if you caption your videos, then it benefits everyone—a large portion of your class, not just students who are deaf.

This is in contrast to an accommodation approach, which would wait until a student who is deaf enrolls in your class and then find some way—often scrambling—to find some way to provide access to that video very quickly.

Have a Clear Syllabus. Provide Options for Student Communication and Assessment.

Howard: You mention captioning and the universal benefits it provides. Can you discuss some other approaches and tips for implementing Universal Design?

Sheryl: As an example, in online learning, or any type of class, I recommend that people take a Universal Design approach starting with the syllabus, making a very clear syllabus where it’s easy for students to know how to communicate and reach the instructor. For a student with a disability there’s a statement that suggests how they can request accommodations from the disability services office. But also how you would like input from them about the accessibility or usability of your course, which may or may not be disability-related.

Key is the idea that you stay open to improving your course so that more people can access the important content that you’re teaching. That’s important—your syllabus should be organized in discrete sections or modules with a good outline of the topic—maybe week to week even would be good, but at least the different modules in your course so that people can look ahead to what they’re going to be learning. Make your assignments clear—in most cases you could describe your assignment very specifically in your syllabus even though students will not need to start working on it for weeks to come. Some students may want to be starting on it right away. And have a rubric for how you’re going to grade those assignments and the points the students are accumulating, and how you’ll formulate the final grade in the end.

Making things really clear and easy to follow in the syllabus is your first step. Then be really thoughtful throughout your course regarding acronyms and specialized terminology. When we’re teaching a course, some terms—like universal design, in my case—are so obvious. We use it so often we kind of forget that most of the people that are in our course, at least some of them, are not able to understand those acronyms – so describe them. Be careful of both the use of acronyms and jargon. Did you really need to use an acronym in that case when you’re only going to use the name of that organization once or twice? Why not just spell it? And, as far as jargon, sometimes the jargon we use isn’t essential to the course and so avoid it. But if it is important to the course, then define it, maybe even several times in several different ways.  Maybe even include a link to a resource that would give further description of that concept. Organize your material in a meaningful way as well, dividing blocks of material into short sub-sections that are easier to scan and read.

Provide multiple communication options, particularly if you’re having a small group discussion. If you have your students organized in small groups, don’t require only one way for them to communicate (such as using Skype), because that may not be accessible to all the participants.  But you can ask your students to, as their first item of work in their small group, to decide what technology they’re going to use to engage in that small group. Students then do not have to disclose their disability but if a student is not able to use Skype because of a disability, they will promote some other way to communicate in their group. There are things you can build into an assignment like that that will assure that there’s accessibility without requiring that the student disclose their disability.

Provide outlines—that goes along with organizing your content by outlines of things, maybe as a preview of what’s to come. And make sure that your assessments are universally designed. Don’t just assess one way, assess multiple ways. Again, give people multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge. So you might have a choice that students can have in how they’re going to be assessed by doing a project, creating a video, doing a power point, or taking an online test, or whatever. Or if everyone is taking the same test, consider different ways for them to share their knowledge: a short answer part, a multiple choice part, a true and false part, an application part, etc. And then, as you’re teaching the class, make sure that they’ve had a chance to practice sharing that content in the format that you’re using in the test so it isn’t a big surprise when you ask certain questions in a particular format.

How Can I Learn More about Accessibility and Universal Design?

Howard: We have only a limited space for this discussion and although we’ve covered some important aspects of universal design I know there’s much more to learn. Where can readers go from here to learn more?

Sheryl: There are some good resources online about universal design to continue the conversation that we’re having right now in this particular topic (see url for this resource and others below).  There is a National Center for Universal Design where you can find out about the history of universal design. There’s a national center that focuses on universal design in education that’s actually housed here in the DO-IT Center at the University of Washington.

There’s the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) —we’re on version 2.0.  It’s very technical but has excellent guidelines on how to make your websites and related products like videos accessible to people with disabilities. If you find WCAG too daunting, another organization, WebAIM presents much of the WCAG concepts into easy-to-follow tutorials.

We have here a project called AccessDL, which is access to distance learning. On the AccessDL page you’ll have an opportunity to join a community of practice, an online community for people who want to continue this discussion about making online learning courses more accessible to students with disabilities.  You’ll see a lot of links to other resources, such as the great resources at CAST that are primarily focused on K-12 education and universal design.

Howard: Thank you Sheryl. Any final comments before we close?

Sheryl: My final thoughts on universal design are to think about universal design in this way:  it is an attitude—it’s very inclusive.  It’s a goal.  You’ll probably never reach it; you’ll probably never ever create a course or any other application that’s fully accessible to everybody in the world.  But you can be looking at that as your goal as you take incremental steps to more inclusive design.


Below are listed some the resources mentioned in the interview. I am also including links to an upcoming conference that I coordinate: Accessing Higher Ground, an upcoming MOOC on Basics of Inclusive Design Online, a course I’m developing with two colleagues, and some other relevant resources.

AccessDL – The Center on Accessible Distance Learning – http://www.washington.edu/doit/programs/accessdl

Accessing Higher Ground: Accessible Media, Web and Technology Conference – November 16 – 18, 2015, Westminster, CO – http://accessinghigherground.org/

Basics of Inclusive Design Online – check for this MOOC on Coursera.org in late October or email hkramer@colorado.edu for information

CAST – http://www.cast.org/

EasyChecks – an easy to follow guide on getting started with web accessibility based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 – http://www.w3.org/WAI/eval/preliminary.html

Universal Design & Accessibility for Online Courses – a set of guidelines and tutorials developed for Online Credit at CU-Boulder – http://webdevgroupcu.org/conted/

WebAIM – Web Accessibility in Mind – http://webaim.org/ Howard Kramer

Howard Kramer
Accessing Higher Ground, Conference Coordinator
Lecturer, University of Colorado-Boulder

Sheryl Burgstahler

Sheryl Burgstahler
Founder and Director, DO-IT Center and Director of Accessible Technologies, University of Washington


Photo credit: By Andrew Bossi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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