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Universal Design in School

Our last article explored how an education standard could mandate an individual accommodation process for students with disabilities. In this article, we discuss universal design, a different way to make learning accessible for students. We describe what universal design is and how it makes school more accessible.

Universal Design in School

Universal design means creating products, services, and places that every person can use. When something is universally designed, creators are thinking about people’s accessibility needs during the design process. Thinking about accessibility at the design stage often saves time and money later, because retrofits are more costly and time-consuming than accessibility from the start.

Benefits of Universal Design


School spaces, lessons, and services outside the classroom can all be created using universal design. When school spaces and services are accessible from the start, students can start learning when their sighted peers do. For example, a universally-designed online database for accessible-format E-textbooks would give all students access to textbooks at the same time. Under the individual accommodation model, each student needing accessible books must find out whether each of their textbooks is already accessible. Then, the school must request access to alternate-format books, ask publishers to make accessible copies, or convert the books themselves. This process takes time, so students may need to wait weeks or months for their books. As a result, they may fall behind in their course work while waiting for books they can read. In contrast, universally-designed resources ensure that all students have timely access.


In addition, universal design ensures that students whose abilities and needs change always have access to lessons. For instance, someone’s ability to concentrate might change over time, or from day to day. Under the individual accommodation model, this student would need to ask for different accommodations whenever their level of concentration changed. Universally designed lessons would enable students to use different learning strategies at different times. This way the student doesn’t need to wait for new accommodations.

Accessibility for Everyone

Furthermore, universal design also allows more students to benefit from accessible features. For instance, Real-Time Captioning (RTC) gives students who are deaf access to word-for-word lesson content. A trained captioner records speech and it appears almost right away on a large screen. However, many other students could find visual display of a teacher’s words useful. For example, students learning English may understand written words more easily than spoken ones. As a result, they might understand lessons better by seeing the words as well as hearing them. Moreover, other students learn more when they can access content by both listening and reading. Therefore, teachers could help many students by making and showing written scripts of their lessons. If they used computers and large screens similar to an RTC set-up, they could make changes to their transcripts in class.

Universal Design and Accommodation Together

Universal design may not make every element of a lesson accessible to all students. Some students may always need a few individual accommodations. For instance, some students may need one-on-one guidance as they learn memory aids or organizational skills. Similarly, other students may learn best using Braille or Sign language interpretation. These accommodations will need to be arranged individually. However, universal design can make these individual accommodations easier to put in place. For instance, a regular classroom routine can support students as they implement memory or organizational aids. Similarly, students can access Braille more easily using accessible-format documents with a Braille display or Braille printer. Likewise, interpretation is easier when teachers are already used to staying in one place, to help students focus.

In addition, some students may be able to use a combination of individual accommodation and universal design in school. For instance, a student might read some textbooks in Braille and others as accessible e-books. Similarly, a student might use Sign language interpretation for some classes and captioning for others. Universal design in school means that students have more flexibility to learn in ways that are best for them.