"Universal Design" is the design of products and environments to be usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Educational environments are created to be welcoming and inclusive of individual differences, creating physically accessible spaces, accessible policies and procedures, and accessible curricula. Faculty are encouraged to develop a class for all students, rather than some "average" student, considering the inclusion of non-traditional students, students who process information differently, those who use wheelchairs, and those who use assistive technology. The conceptual framework for universal design originates in the belief that a broad range of human ability is ordinary. The goal is to create an academic experience that reduces the need for individual accommodation and welcomes all students.

Universal design considers universal access during the design process rather than as an alteration afterward. The thoughtfully conceived design will naturally include the greatest number of people most naturally. Consider curb cuts originally designed for wheelchairs but making life easier for bicyclists, people with baby strollers, or those pulling wheeled luggage. Captioned films shown as part of a presentation can benefit everyone viewing the film.

Just like in the physical world, universal design in the classroom can have a powerful effect on the students feeling included. When faculty design courses using universal design, they consider a wide variety of learners and work to minimize potential barriers. In designing courses, materials, and activities, these universal-design principles are considered:

  • Equality
  • Flexibility
  • Predictability
  • Clarity of expression and vocabulary
  • Opportunities for clarification
  • Ease of participation
  • Inclusiveness of the environment: space and acoustics, for example
  • Opportunities for interaction
  • Inviting attitudes

[Parts of this section were adapted from the pamphlets "Universal Design and Higher Education: A Guide for Students", undated; and "Universal Design for Inclusive Lectures and Presentations", 2010, both by the Association on Higher Education and Disability, Huntersville, NC.]