What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching that consists of designing course instruction, materials, and content to benefit a broad range of learners, including students with disabilities.

At the core of Universal Design for Learning is the principle of inclusiveness and equity: UDL provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information.

UDL operates on the premise that the planning and delivery of courses as well as the assessment of learning can incorporate inclusive attributes that embrace diversity in learners whilst maintaining academic standards. It therefore takes into consideration the diversity of abilities, disabilities, racial/ethnic backgrounds, reading abilities, ages, and other characteristics of the student cohort.

“UDL provides a blueprint for creating flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that accommodate learner differences. ‘Universal’ does not imply a single optimal solution for everyone. Instead, it is meant to underscore the need for multiple approaches to meet the needs of diverse learners.” (CAST, www.cast.org)

In essence, Universal Design for Learning is simply good teaching.

Where did the concept of Universal Design for Learning come from?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based on the concept of Universal Design, an idea that originated in the field of architecture. Planners began anticipating the broad range of needs of a public that includes a variety of ages, abilities and disabilities, and incorporating them in essential design elements.

In this way, universally designed environments and products have become an increasingly common feature of daily living:

  • cuts in street gutters meet the needs of parents pushing prams, people pulling suitcases, skateboarders, delivery workers, wheelchair users, and individuals with other mobility difficulties
  • text messaging on mobile phones provides accessibility for people who are deaf and hearing impaired
  • closed caption texts on television screens, and electronic doors for entrances to buildings benefit all users, not just those with disabilities.

In Universal Design the accessibility component is incorporated at the design phase, meeting the needs of potential users with a wide range of characteristics.

What is the relevance of Universal Design for Learning to disability in the higher education context?

The most common model of service delivery to students with disabilities in the post-secondary setting has been the ‘reasonable accommodation’ or ‘reasonable adjustment’ model.

But there are inherent limitations to this model as it relies primarily on a reactive or ‘bolt-on’ approach to removing discrimination and minimising academic disadvantage for students with disabilities.

UDL provides a more proactive and anticipatory approach to meeting the needs of students with disabilities:


Reasonable Adjustment Approach

Universal Design Approach

Access is the individual’s problem and should be addressed by that person and the Disability Service

Access difficulties arise from inaccessible, poorly designed environments and should be addressed by the designer 

Access is achieved through academic adjustments 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 of through special treatment

Access is inclusive

Access must be reconsidered each time a new individual uses the system i.e. is consumable

Access is part of the environmental design, is sustainable
(Source: Adapted from UALR Project Pace ‘Universal Design’)

Why should staff use Universal Design for Learning?

UDL has broader applications than minimising disadvantage and meeting the academic needs of students with disabilities. As a result of the Review of Higher Education in Australia (the Bradley Review), released in December 2008, the Australian Government committed to a dramatic increase in the proportion of Australian residents aged 25-34 who possess a university qualification (a 40% targeted increase by 2025).

The Government has also targeted an increase in the proportion of students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds.

This ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education’ agenda has significant implications for how academic staff members effectively meet the learning needs of a highly diverse student population. Increasingly, approaches to teaching and learning for this diverse student cohort need to be

  • usable
  • equitable
  • inclusive, and
  • sustainable.

These are concepts which are central to the principles of UDL.

How do we move towards Universal Design for Learning?

Employing the practice of UDL requires a paradigm shift across the University.

From a Disability practice perspective, as more staff adopt UDL in course design and delivery we envisage that the focus of the Disability Service will be less on one-to-one ‘service delivery’ and more directed towards strategic planning and developing collaborative partnerships across the campus communities.

Incorporation of UDL across the University will allow the emphasis to shift from compliance, adjustments, and non-discrimination to an emphasis on teaching and learning. A move away from legal mandates also takes the focus away from what we are obliged to do, to recognising disability as an aspect of diversity that is integral to society and the university community.

Clearly however learning environments can never be entirely accessible to all students’ needs so there will continue to be a need for provision of individual adjustments for particular students. But all learning environments can be made more accessible and inclusive.

To adopt the principles of UDL is to be proactive in engaging with student diversity. Staff working collaboratively in this way will create a campus community characterised by an equitable, inclusive and sustainable learning environment.

What are the main characteristics of Universal Design for Learning?

The main characteristics of UDL are derived from the literature and research on Universal Design principles and effective teaching, and provide a framework for academic staff to review their existing practice and inform a variety of new practices.

UDL uses the UD principles to design courses “to be usable be all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.”

The UD principles are listed below, with a brief annotation as to how they relate to the learning environment:

  1. Equitable Use. Instruction is designed to be useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities. Provide the same means of use for all students; identical wherever possible; equivalent when not.
  2. Flexibility in Use. Instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Provide a choice in method of use.
  3. Simple and Intuitive. Instruction is designed to be delivered and perceived in a straightforward and predictable manner, regardless of the student’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  4. Perceptible Information. Instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student, regardless of ambient conditions or the student’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error. Instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills.
  6. Low Physical Effort. Instruction is designed to minimise nonessential physical effort in order to allow maximum attention to learning. 
    Note: This principle does not apply when physical effort is integral to essential requirements of a course.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use. Instruction is designed with consideration of appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulations, and use regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs.

(source: https://www.washington.edu/doit/universal-design-process-principles-and-applications)

In essence UD, in the learning context, is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials - they are not ‘bolted on’ after-the-fact.

When courses are designed and presented in keeping with these principles, then the learning of all students, including those with disabilities, is enhanced.

Ref: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in Postsecondary Settings Ohio State University http://ada.osu.edu/resources/fastfacts/Universal_Design.htm

How do I put Universal Design for Learning into practice?

There are Guidelines for applying UDL. These Guidelines are organised according to the three main over-arching principles of UDL:

  • representation of information
  • expression of knowledge, and
  • student engagement.

Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation

  • Students vary in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. The use of various methods of representation can allow the student to learn the information in their preferred way. For example, students with sensory disabilities (e.g. hearing or visual impairment), learning disabilities, language or cultural differences etc. may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information better through visual or auditory means rather than from printed text. As there is no one means of representation that will be optimal for all students; providing options for representation is essential.
    (Source: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines)

To find out more about Multiple Means of Representation visit the US ‘National Center on Universal Design for Learning’ website:


Principle 2: Provide multiple means of expression

  • Students vary in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, students with significant motor disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy), those with planning and organisational difficulties (e.g. executive function disorders, ADHD), and those who have language barriers etc. approach learning tasks very differently from each other. Some may be able to express themselves well in writing text but not orally, and vice versa. As there is no one means of expression that will be optimal for all students, providing options for expression is essential.
    (Source: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines)

To find out more about Multiple Means of Expression visit the US ‘National Center on Universal Design for Learning’ website:


Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement

  • There is a wide variety in the ways in which students can be engaged or motivated to learn. Some students are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even put off, by those approaches. Having flexible teaching strategies and universally designed course content allows students to choose methods that support their interest and skill levels.
    (Source: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines)

To find out more about Multiple Means of Engagement visit the US ‘National Center on Universal Design for Learning’ website:


Where can I see Universal Design for Learning in practice?

The following YouTube clip from the Humber Centre for Teaching and Learning provides a clear explanation of UDL and practice examples. The running time is approximately 5 minutes. It is recommended that you copy and paste the link into your browser:



The National Center on Universal Design for Learning (US Resource) http://www.udlcenter.org/ provides extensive information on the implementation of UDL, and on-line training modules.

References and Internet Resources

Page last updated on 22/09/2020

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