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Universal Design in Secondary and Postsecondary Education

By Christine D. Bremer

Despite advances in accessibility to school buildings and classrooms, students with disabilities still face barriers to learning in both secondary and post-secondary settings. At the secondary level, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as amended in 1997, promises students with disabilities both participation and progress in the general education curriculum. At the postsecondary level, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 dictate that colleges and universities must provide appropriate academic adjustments as needed to ensure that the school is not discriminating on the basis of disability. These requirements challenge educational institutions to provide access to learning as well as classrooms.

Many techniques are available to help teachers adapt curricula and assessment to individual students. However, these solutions are often time-consuming, tend to separate students with disabilities from their classmates, and vary widely in effectiveness. As a result, there is growing interest in universal design, an approach that seeks to maximize access and usability for everyone.

What is Universal Design?

With universal design, the focus is on considering all users from the very beginning of the design process, and achieving accessibility by meeting the needs and desires of the widest possible range of users. The concept of universal design originated in the field of architecture as a response to concerns about the inefficiency of individualized retrofitted solutions in buildings, and the inappropriateness of placing the burden of adaptation on individuals. Ramped entrances and automatic doors are architectural examples of universal design. The universal design movement was founded by architect Ron Mace, a wheelchair user who had personal experience with the failings of traditional design practices. In the 1970s, he developed the first code for building accessi- bility in the nation. He was a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities, and promoted the idea that products and built environments should be designed from the outset to be aesthetically pleasing and usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible.

The principles of universal design in relation to environments, products, and communications (Connell et al., 1997) have been articulated in this way:

For students with disabilities to have meaningful access to the general curriculum, diverse learning needs and styles must be accommodated. In the past, providing access has meant enabling physical access to the classroom and, for some students, providing adaptive equipment to facilitate sensory and motor access to the curriculum. More recently, however, there has been a growing interest in using the principles of universal design to create curricula, instruction, and assessments that increase access and reduce the need for individualized adaptation and accommodation.

Universal Design of Secondary Curricula and Texts

The following five strategies are general approaches that can be used to implement universal design in the classroom (Orkwis & McLane, 1998):

  1. Providing all text in digital format.
  2. Providing captions for all audio.
  3. Providing educationally relevant descriptions for images and graphical layouts.
  4. Providing captions and educationally relevant descriptions for video.
  5. Providing cognitive supports for content and activities, including:

The Center for Accessing Special Technology (CAST) pursues a program of work to develop specific methods and materials applying the concept of universal design to curriculum and instruction, describing their work as Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2003). This approach is based on the view that traditional curriculum materials (usually texts) and methods may present barriers to diverse learners. Universal Design for Learning promotes the development of a flexible curriculum that can support all learners more effectively and make learning more accessible. In this view, the key to more accessible learning is to provide students with a range of options to support learning, including multiple approaches to presentation of materials, expression of student work, and engagement in the learning process. Teachers begin the instructional decision-making process with a set of goals. They then select a range of materials and methods to most effectively and efficiently teach each goal. CAST has been promoting the development of universally designed texts and assessments, and is conducting research to assess the impact of Universal Design for Learning on students with disabilities. One approach developed by CAST is the use of embedded reading strategy supports, which help students develop literacy skills as they read assignments for classes.

Universal Design of Assessments

Universally-designed assessments are intended to be both accessible and valid for the widest possible range of students. In order to develop a universally- designed assessment, the entire test development process must incorporate aspects of universal design. Using universally-designed assessments has the obvious benefit of enabling all students to take the same test, thus simplifying interpretation of results. In addition, such assessments can reduce paperwork needed to comply with IDEA '97 legislation provision §300.532©(2) that states:

If an assessment is not conducted under standard conditions, a description of the extent to which it varied from standard conditions (e.g., the qualifications of the person administering the test or the method of test administration) must be included in the evaluation report.

If only ordinary accommodations are needed, this documentation task is simplified.

In order to apply universal design principles to an assessment instrument, the purpose of the assessment must be clear, and the assessment should be designed specifically for that purpose. Test items should be designed to be usable with accommodations; for example, those designing assessments should avoid using graphics that cannot be made available in Braille. Increasingly, computers are being used to conduct assessments.

Computerized assessment can offer many advantages, but also presents some challenges. Most students prefer computerized assessment, and it is relatively easy to provide many accommodations on a computer such as large print and consistent audio presentations of an item. However, some students may encounter difficulties with scrolling and other tasks requiring fine motor control, or may be unaccustomed to writing on a computer. In most cases, these concerns can be addressed through the use of adaptive technology or by allowing the student more time to complete the assessment.

A more detailed discussion of universal design for large-scale assessments is available in Universal Design Applied to Large Scale Assessments (Thompson, Johnstone, & Thurlow, 2002).

Universal Design of Postsecondary Instruction

Curriculum Transformation and Disability, a federally-funded project housed at the University of Minnesota, adapted principles of universal design developed by Connell et al. (1997), along with Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987), to create Principles for Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education (Fox & Johnson, 2000). These principles were utilized and tested by more than 200 faculty at six colleges and universities in the Midwest. They are:

At the postsecondary level, course content and requirements vary widely. Faculty who are committed to inclusive practices have applied universal design principles in many creative ways. Some examples are listed below (Ivy Access Initiative, 2003):



Universal design is growing in popularity because it improves learning for everyone, while minimizing the need for individualized accommodations. In addition to being cost-effective and user-friendly, universal design has the added benefit of promoting full inclusion of students with disabilities in the educational environment. Using both technology and creativity, universal design promises to offer full access and participation to an expanding circle of students.


*Note: Bobby is a Web accessibility software tool designed to help find and address barriers to accessibility and encourage compliance with current accessibility guidelines. For more information, visit the Bobby Web site at



Astin, A.W. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Center for Accessing Special Technology (2003). Universal design for learning. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from

Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39, 3-7. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from

Connell, B.R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., et al. (1997). The principles of universal design. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from

Fox, J.A., & Johnson, D. (Eds.). (2000). Curriculum Transformation and Disability (CTAD) workshop facilitator's guide. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Curriculum Transformation and Disability.

Ivy Access Initiative (2003). How faculty have applied universal instructional design in their classes. Providence, RI: Brown University. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from The list was compiled by the Ivy Access Initiative based in part on an earlier list compiled by the Curriculum Transformation and Disability (CTAD) project at the University of Minnesota. Both projects were funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Orkwis, R., & McLane, K. (1998). A curriculum every student can use: Design principles for student access. ERIC/OSEP Topical Brief. Reston, VA: ERIC/OSEP Special Project. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED423654). Retrieved November 4, 2003 from .

Thompson, S. J., Johnstone, C. J., & Thurlow, M. L. (2002). Universal design applied to large scale assessments (Synthesis Report 44). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved November 4, 2003 from

Christine D. Bremer is Program Coordinator with the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/625-7595 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 671 K, 36 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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