Birds-eye view of people drinking coffee around a table with laptop and tablet used to represent ecoffee at SGH.

What is Universal Design for Learning? Why does UDL matter?

To understand what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is, firstly, we need to look back at the origins of Universal Design. Architect Ron Mace coined the term “universal design” to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life. For example, stairs can be an access feature or a barrier as they cannot (easily) be used by people with some physical disabilities, elderly people, children, people pushing prams/carts etc.

Clearing a path for people with special needs clears the path for everyone. A person is a wheelchair is next to a group of school children who are watching a caretaker shovel snow off some steps. Person in wheelchair: Could you please shovel the ramp? caretaker: All these other kids are waiting to use the stairs. When I get through shovelling them off. Then I will clear the ramp for you. Person in wheelchair: But if you shovel the ramp, we can all get in.

Nowadays, retrofitting for physical access usually only happens to very old public buildings. We expect that there will be ways for people with physical disabilities to access new public buildings. Equally importantly, this is how we should view educational materials that are online. Any student should be able to access them without it being a major undertaking.

Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) benefit all students. During the session, we discussed:

  • Inclusive design
  • Equality
  • Equity
  • Usability
  • Removing barriers

Overall, we can view Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as inclusive excellence and methods to get the greatest number of students succeeding.

Who are your learners?

A groups of animals (including a goldfish, a seal, a monkey and a bird) are standing in front of an examiner. He says "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree". This is the opposite of UDL (Universal Design for Learning).

Consider the diverse learners you have in your classroom. What needs do they have? Most importantly, what are you doing to meet those needs?

When considering accessibility, many people only think of severe permanent disabilities (e.g. blindness rather than having a level of visual impairment). The diagram below from Microsoft Inclusive Design can help you to consider the temporary and situational impairments that many people will face at some point during their lifetime.

Image showing that disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational.
© Microsoft Inclusive Design

Robin Tamez, Learning Architect, argues that “Accessibility starts with complying with standards and goes beyond by removing barriers for as many digital learners as possible. Universal design is a framework of principles to achieve accessibility for the greatest number of learners.”

Do you use accessibility features?

It is estimated that 60% of people without disabilities use some kind of accessibility feature. The following images are some examples of accessibility features that are now in common use:

OXO good grips swivel vegetable peeler. This peeler features a non-slip rubber handle to make it easier to hold. It is a good example fo universal design.
The OXO good grips vegetable peeler was originally designed for someone with arthritis.
Screenshot showing predictive text
Predictive text was designed for users with motor problems to avoid having to tap keys repeatedly on old-style mobile phones.
Phone screen of a Nokia 3310 saying '3 messages received'.
Finland’s Matti Makonen is credited with inventing SMS texting. The first SMS was sent in 1992. Makkonen invented SMS texting for deaf people to communicate, but when SMS offered an incredible new method for saving telecom bandwidth, the world of cellular telecommunications changed.

In the USA, 26 000 people lose an upper limb each year. However, the number of people with temporary and situational disabilities is over 20 million. In consequence, creating accessible resources/products means that we go from benefitting less than 0.01% of the population to around 7%. I couldn’t find any UK statistics about temporary and situational disabilities, but general disability statistics are available:

  • 13.3 million people in the UK have some kind of disability
  • 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colour blind
  • 10% of the UK population are dyslexic
  • Over 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss
  • 19% of the UK population have a hearing loss – of whom 6.5 million are over 60 years old
  • 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning difficulty
  • 2.4 million people in the UK have a manual dexterity issue

Equality vs equity

Two images side by side. Each image shows a fence and people trying to look over it to see a ball game. The ground by the fence is not level. In the first image (labelled equality), each person has a box to stand on, but some people cannot see over it. In the second image, labelled equity, people have an uneven number of boxes, but all of them can see over.
When it comes to equity, we don’t start with a level playing field. © Paul Kuttner

We should think about universal design to ensure our learners have equitable access to education. When it comes to traditional education in the UK, learners are treated equally. They are all given the same resources and their knowledge and understanding are tested in the same way. In the last 50 years, we have moved towards equitable education. Consequently, accommodations, modifications and support are based on the needs of specific (identified) students. Many educators are now moving towards flexible learning experiences, which is a step on from accessible learning to inclusive learning.

What are our obligations?

Person in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

In addition to the moral imperative to improve what we are doing, there is the legal imperative. Moreover, you have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. It is also good practice to observe WCAG 2.1 AA Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. In September 2018, The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Application) (no. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 came into force.

The new regulations cover website and app content as well as digital resources produced by public sector bodies.

Common accessibility problems include websites that can’t be navigated using a keyboard, inaccessible PDF forms that can’t be read out on screen readers, and poor colour contrast that makes text difficult to read, especially for visually impaired people. (

At the moment, many UK Higher Education Institutions are still considering the implications and actions that need to be taken. (You can read the latest discussions on the JISC Accessibility Mailing list).

We know that increasing numbers of students with disabilities are participating in Higher Education. However, the Disabled Students’ Allowance has not significantly increased as there is an expectation that universities will be more inclusive.

The good news is that evidence from California State University is that UDL increases the GPA of all students.

This short Ted Talk by Haben Girma explains some of the challenges that she experienced as a deaf-blind student:

UDL Guidance from CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology in Boston, USA)

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

When it comes to learning, variability is the rule not the exception. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that guides the design of learning goals, materials, methods, and assessments as well as the policies surrounding these curricular elements with the diversity of learners in mind. – UDL on Campus

This is a PDF of the UDL guidelines. Multiple version are available from: One of these may better meet your needs.
UDL Guidelines graphic organiser available from

Guidance from CAST on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) focuses on the why, what and how of learning. You may want to consider these aspects of your teaching to see whether there are any changes that you can make within the restrictions of your course. There may be some simple changes that you can implement, whereas others may need to be considered as part of wider discussions.

UDL Why – engagement – Affective learning networks (participation)

  • How can learners contribute resources of interest?
  • How can you reduce learners’ anxiety to promote engagement?
    • Communicating frequently with the whole class and individuals may help to reduce stress and to encourage self-reflection. Discussion boards can be overwhelming. Support students by providing summaries, highlighting critical points and facilitating discussions. Provide opportunities for small group discussions and large group sharing.
  • What opportunities are available for learners to be actively engaged?
    • Are you able to provide opportunities for the class to create assignments and rubrics?
  • Are there opportunities for self-assessment to increase comprehension?
    • Foster reflective practices
  • Do assignments encourage the use of multimedia?
    • Provide options and suggestions for student learning pathways
  • Are you making use of data?
  • Do you share data with students?
  • Do students make use of office hours?

UDL What – represent – Recognition of learning frameworks (course concepts)

  • Are you making use of the digital options available within University-supported software, such as Blackboard or Office 365?
    • Sharing videos, captioning, text-to-speech
  • Do you use multiple examples to activate prior knowledge?
    • When students engage different modalities, they activate deep learning processes.
    • Engaging with diverse content and multimedia is essential for 21st-century learning contexts.
  • When presenting a lecture, is information presented in multiple formats?
    • Give students access to ppt slides, discuss note-taking strategies
    • Ensure students have access to formats they need when they need them, regardless of ability or device.
  • Are you making use of data?
  • ­Which resources are most used?
  • ­Which formats are most viewed?
  • ­Is there any relationship between accessing different forms of course content and student achievement?
    • Improve study habits through multiple forms of engagement
    • Skim sections of a tagged PDF to build context
    • Annotate an ePub for critical close reading
    • Review by listening to the MP3

UDL How – expression – Strategic learning networks (demonstration of learning)

  • What types of opportunities do learners have to communicate?
  • How do you support students’ understanding of assignments and task directions?
  • Are there alternate ways to contribute during discussions?
  • Are you making use of data?
  • ­When are students submitting assignments? Is it last minute?
    • Narrated video to clarify steps involved in an assignment
  • ­Is there any correlation between students who do formative assignments and their final grades?
  • Do you have clear rubrics in your course?
  • Do you have small group activities?
  • Can students write journal responses or other written feedback?

Tips to help you design a more inclusive learning experience for your students

One simple question to think about is ‘Can students see at a glance what they are going to have to do?’

Some students use assistive technology to help them with their studies. However, this technology can only help students if texts have been appropriately created. An example of assistive technology used by some students is a screen reader.

How do scanned documents affect learners?

Many people provide their students with scanned documents. However, a scanned document is not the same as a digitised document. That is to say, scanned documents are often simply images of text, which creates a number of problems:

  • Completely inaccessible to a person who uses a screen reader
  • Text cannot easily be highlighted or annotated for notes
  • Unclear text slows down reading and distracts from comprehension

There may also be copyright issues. Getting texts digitised means that book extracts/papers can be made available to staff/students who cannot visit the library. In addition, it gives access to archive resources that are not readily available. You may want to talk to the Library Digitisation Unit. If you need to scan text yourself, you need to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition).

Headings in documents

It is recommended that you use headings and subheadings within any documents that you create.

  • Missing headings make it difficult for people who use screen readers to navigate text
  • Headings make it easier for all learners to quickly scan documents
  • Without headings, documents appear unorganised
  • Cannot easily generate a table of contents or other navigation elements without headings

It is important that you use built-in heading styles when using MS Word, rather than just changing the font size, emboldening text or underlining it. The latter are not picked up by screen readers as headings.

How can captions enhance student learning?

It is possible to add closed captions and/or subtitles to videos. There is a subtle difference between the two. Subtitles are a text alternative to any spoken words of characters or narrators. Closed captions not only include dialogue but also describe any other sounds that can be heard such as background noises and audio cues, such as a doorbell ringing. Subtitles are usually used for foreign-language texts, whereas closed captions are better for hearing-impaired viewers.

Why use captions?

  • Necessary for students who are deaf or have hearing issues
  • Support retention and comprehension
  • Helps language learners

Learners who need captions shouldn’t have to ask for them. In A Rising Tide: How closed captions can benefit all students, Dello Stritto and Linder discuss the usage of closed captions by a range of students.

90% of students prefer to have captions with videos (University of Oregon) because they can watch videos in places where the sound is not accessible.

Do you use Panopto Lecture Capture?

Recorded videos, such as lecture capture recordings, are exempt if they are published before 23rd September 2020. Live video is exempt altogether. The status of lecture capture recordings after September 2020 is unclear. Some people argue that the provision of a Panopto recording is a supplementary resource designed to be used in addition to attending the real-time lecture and therefore as long as the lecture itself is accessible, the supplementary resource does not need to be… however, this is an on-going discussion.

How do alternative descriptions enhance learning?

Every image that is included within a document (including Powerpoints) should have an alternative description or alt text.

  • A necessity for students who use screen readers
  • Provide students with richer context
  • Ensures understanding for global students

Alt-text is also beneficial for anyone who has internet bandwidth issues as it means that they do not have to rely on images loading up.

Making Powerpoints more accessible

It is best to use a template for your Powerpoint presentations. You can edit the Slide Master to ensure that any consistent elements are correctly tagged and also to check the ‘reading order’ of the slides. The ‘reading order’ is the order in which elements on the page will be read to a learner who is using a screen reader.

A simple tip that can make your powerpoints more accessible but that doesn’t take too much time is to copy and paste the key text into the notes field.

Accessibility features in Office 365

  • Accessibility checker – this provides a list of errors and warnings and tips with how-to-fix recommendations for each
  • Screenshot of Word 365 toolbar showing the dictate button.
    Dictate – It is possible to dictate Word documents and Outlook emails. You need to say the name of punctuation marks to add them. (However, please bear in mind that ‘period’ needs to be used for a full-stop).
  • Immersive reader (View – Immersive reader)
    Screenshot of Word 365 immersive reader in action.


    • Text preferences:
      • Text size
      • Increase spacing
      • Font (Calibri, Sitka, Comic Sans)
      • Themes (background colours)
    • Grammar options:
      • Syllables
      • Parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs – with or without labels)
    • Reading preferences:
      • Line focus
      • Picture dictionary
      • Translate (into a wide range of languages) by word or by document
  • Speak text-to-speech feature
    Screenshot of Speak text-to-speech feature.
  • Readability – you can find out your document’s readability on the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level.
    Screenshot of teh Readability score of a Word document.
  • Blackboard Ally

    To help people ensure that their online content is accessible a number of companies have been developing products that rate the accessibility of items and give tips on how to improve them. For example, Blackboard have created Ally.


    Enabling services at the University of Southampton

    Enabling services provide support for students with disabilities, mental health conditions and/or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. However, they do not provide support for staff with disabilities. Nor do they provide training for staff working with students with disabilities or specific learning differences.

    Further reading about UDL and accessibility:

    ecoffee @ SGH: Universal Design for Learning

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