Universal Design for Learning

As we’ve learned in Accessibility Principles for ICT, we can apply universal design to fields outside of architecture and web products. CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, built up the field of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a educational framework of principles, guidelines, and checkpoints that works towards one goal: create expert learners who are:

  • purposeful,
  • motivated,
  • resourceful,
  • knowledgeable,
  • strategic, and
  • goal-directed.

What are the principles of universal design for learning?

There are 3 principles of UDL. Each principle has 3 guidelines. Each guideline has a list of checkpoints.

  1. Provide multiple means of representation: Recognition Networks, the “What” of learning.
    1. Perception:
      1. Offer ways of customizing the display of information.
      2. Offer alternatives for auditory information.
      3. Offer alternatives for visual information.
    2. Language & symbols:
      1. Clarify vocabulary and symbols.
      2. Clarify syntax and structure.
      3. Support decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols.
      4. Promote understanding across languages.
      5. Illustrate through multiple media.
    3. Comprehension:
      1. Activate or supply background knowledge.
      2. Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships.
      3. Guide information processing and visualization.
      4. Maximize transfer and generalization.
  2. Provide multiple means of action and expression: Strategic Networks, the “How” of learning.
    1. Physical action:
      1. Vary the methods for response and navigation.
      2. Optimize access to tools and assistive technologies.
    2. Expression & communication:
      1. Use multiple media for communication.
      2. Use multiple tools for construction and composition.
      3. Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.
    3. Executive function:
      1. Guide appropriate goal-setting.
      2. Support planning and strategy development.
      3. Facilitate managing information and resources.
      4. Enhance capacity for monitoring progress.
  3. Provide multiple means of engagement: Affective Networks, the “Why” of learning.
    1. Recruiting interest:
      1. Optimize individual choice and anatomy.
      2. Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity.
      3. Minimize threats and distractions.
    2. Sustaining effort & persistence:
      1. Heighten salience of goals and objectives.
      2. Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge.
      3. Foster collaboration and community.
      4. Increase mastery-oriented feedback.
    3. Self regulation:
      1. Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation.
      2. Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies.
      3. Develop self-assessment and reflections.

The UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints can be easier to digest as a 3×3 matrix that CAST presents on its website:

3x3 matrix of principles and guidelines with checkpoints.
The UDL Guidelines matrix on the CAST website.


UDL puts a lot of focus on including learners with disabilities. In doing so, UDL acknowledges that by including people with disabilities, curriculum will naturally include more students by accepting each student’s own learning style, communication mode, and motivational carrot. Learning becomes more about strengthening learning techniques, and less about the thing learned or the rigid metrics desired by some educational systems. It’s people-first.


Accessibility Principles for the Physical World (Universal Design 2.0)

Universal design got its start in the physical world. As I noted in Accessibility Principles for ICT (WCAG), universal design principles can have an impact on the digital world, too. In the physical world, universal design focuses on making spaces available and welcoming to as many different types of people and abilities, as possible, without adaptation or specialized design. It aims for a one-size-fits-all design solution that embraces the social model of disability, which says that people only experience a disability when a design creates that barrier.

As a side note, I touched on the topic of universal design during Day 93: Designing an Accessible User Experience, Part 1 of my WAS certification journey. So many of these principles that revolve around access for all tend to overlap in ideas in order to make equitable access a reality.

The 7 principles of universal design are:

  1. equitable use
  2. flexibility in use
  3. simple and intuitive use
  4. perceptible information
  5. tolerance for error
  6. low physical effort
  7. size & space for approach & use

Equitable Use

The first principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities by:

  • Providing the same means of use
  • Preventing segregation or stigmatization
  • Supplying privacy, security, and safety
  • Making an appealing design


  • automated sliding doors that open upon approach
  • public seating that is adaptable for a variety of people and abilities

Flexibility in Use

The second principle’s design guidelines say that a design should accommodate a wide range of preferences and abilities by:

  • Providing choices in methods of use
  • Accommodating right- or left-handed access and use
  • Facilitating the user’s accuracy and precision
  • Providing adaptability to the user’s pace


  • scissors that can be used by left- or right-handed people
  • ATM that has visual, tactile, and auditory feedback

Simple and Intuitive Use

The third principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be easy to understand how to use, regardless of a user’s past experiences, knowledge, language, or focus by:

  • Eliminating unnecessary complexity
  • Meeting user expectations and intuition
  • Accommodating a wide range of literacy and language skills
  • Arranging information by importance
  • Providing prompting and feedback throughout tasks


  • escalator
  • image-only instruction manual

Perceptible Information

The fourth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should communicate important information to a user, despite lighting conditions or user’s sensory abilities by:

  • Using multiple modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for presentation of essential information
  • Maximizing “legibility” (contrast, text) of essential information
  • Differentiating elements in ways that can be described
  • Providing compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations


  • thermostat with tactile, visual, and audible cues
  • airport announcements communicated via speaker and signage

Tolerance for Error

The fifth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should minimize hazards and consequences of accidental or unintended actions by:

  • Arranging elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded
  • Providing warnings of hazards and errors
  • Providing fail safe features
  • Discouraging unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance


  • an undo feature in a software program
  • a double-cut key that can be inserted either way it’s turned

Low Physical Effort

The sixth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be made to be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue by:

  • Allowing a user to maintain a neutral body position
  • Using reasonable operating forces
  • Minimizing repetitive actions
  • Minimizing sustained physical effort


  • lever door handle
  • touch lamps

Size and Space for Approach and Use

The seventh principle’s design guidelines say that a design should provide space and size for approach, reach, manipulation, and use for all body sizes, postures, and means of mobility by:

  • Providing a clear line of sight to important elements (seated or standing)
  • Making reach to all components comfortable (seated or standing)
  • Accommodating variations in hand and grip size
  • Providing adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance


  • curb cuts and wide sidewalks
  • wide gates and entryways

Additional Reading

Accessibility Principles for ICT (WCAG)

Accessibility is the successful access that people with disabilities have to content and spaces. As I mentioned at the end of Accommodation versus Inclusive Design, I concluded that accessibility is a mismatch between the design and a user’s needs. On the web (or with ICT – information and communication technology) we can create that match by starting with W3C’s web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). The 4 principles of WCAG are:

  • perceivable: broadening the sensory experiences to include sight, sound, and touch,
  • operable: all interactive components and navigation are navigable and usable,
  • understandable: content, component functionality, and design are easy to understand, and
  • robust: content & functionality is compatible with a variety of browsers, devices, and assistive technologies.

Challenges on the web

I won’t go into further detail about all its success criteria just because I’ve written quite a bit about them while studying for the WAS exam. However, I do want to mention some common challenges that people face when on the web, and how accessible design can help designers and developers be aware of how to address these barriers.

Problem area
  • Use alternative text or a visible caption/description
  • Supplement color-coding with other coding information (shapes, texture, etc.)
  • Foreground color should stand out (high contrast) against the background color
Video & audio
  • Include captions and transcripts with video and audio files
  • Include audio description with video
  • Use understandable text with intent, functionality, or destination of the hyperlink
  • Create a logical outline with the headings to make it well-structured and navigable
Keyboard access
  • Make each interactive component on the page reachable by the keyboard
  • All interactive components should create a logical tabbing order
  • Focus should be visible on interactive components
  • Assign headers to columns or rows
  • Explicitly assign a label to every form input
Dynamic JavaScript
  • Explicitly assign a name, role, state and/or properties
  • Assign point of focus when widgets are created
PDF documents
  • Create tags for all structures in a PDF

Universal design can help

Universal design creates products and environments that the vast majority of people can use, taking into account the natural physical diversity among people. Universal design doesn’t just think about people with disabilities, it thinks about a lot of people. By expanding our view from accessible design to universal design, we can make a more usable experience for a lot more people.

Stay tuned for my next post that will go further into universal design, its origins, and its solutions in the context of the physical world.

Additional reading