Top Takeaways:

  • Universal Design for Learning is a design framework closely related to the social model of disability.
  • Universal Design for Learning focuses on 3 ways to design learning environments that are responsive to all learners needs:
    • Multiple means of representation give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
    • Multiple means of expression provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
    • Multiple means of engagement tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.


Incorporate Universal Design for Learning as you plan your course ahead of the term. Implement UDL ongoing throughout the term.

Universal Design for Learning Defined

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a design framework focused on meeting the learning needs of a diversity of learners. In an effort to remove barriers in the classroom environment, UDL focuses on adjusting the learning environment rather than the individual impairment. Addressing environmental barriers at the design phase using the UDL framework removes the need for individuals to self-identify particular disabilities and lessens the need for retrofitting resources, thereby increasing sustainability. The UDL framework also relies on web content development, formatting and usability best practices to benefit all users.

Universal Design for Learning is a specific application of Universal Design (UD), which was a response to the Disability Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The Center for Universal Design at NC State University, notes the convergence of social and legal factors influenced the fields of architecture and design. Marc Harrison (1928-1996), a professor of industrial engineering at the Rhode Island School of Design was a pioneer in what came to be known as UD. Harrison sustained a traumatic brain injury as a child, and his experiences through years of rehabilitation gave him insight and inspiration for his work. He challenged a design philosophy that focused on individuals of average size and ability by promoting the idea that products and environments should be designed for people of all abilities. Ronald Mace, a wheelchair user as well as an internationally recognized architect, product designer, and educator, coined the term universal design in the 1970’s. Like Harrison, Mace challenged the conventional practice of designing products for the average user and promoted a design approach that led to a more accessible and usable world for everyone.

Following the growth in personal computing technology, researchers began looking at intersections of disability and new technologies. Neuropsychologist, David Rose, and Clinical Psychologist, Anne Meyer founded in the 1980s to explore ways to support students with disabilities use of new technology. Their research in areas of the brain related to engagement and learning led to the approach to designing instruction now called Universal Design for Learning.

Social Construction of Disability

Universal Design and UDL focus on designing environments that meet a wide variety of needs rather than designing for an “average” user. This approach is grounded in the social model of disability, which focuses on the ways an environment can enable or disable individuals and uses. The social model of disability identifies disabilities as socially constructed. In contrast, the medical model of disability locates disability within individual impairments. The social model of disability identifies ways in which social environments can be changed to reduce barriers while the medical model relies on medical specialists to serve a specific demographic.

By focusing on the ways environments enable or disable individuals, the social model of disability can help limit costs associated with medical specialists, and barriers can be addressed proactively through the initial design process. The UDL framework focuses on design that is minimal, concise, inclusive, and addresses functional needs.

UDL Framework for Course Design

CAST provides UDL guidelines as a design framework focused on three key areas:

Provide multiple means of Engagement

  • Provide options for self-regulation.
  • Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence.
  • Provide options for recruiting interest.

Provide multiple means of Representation

  • Provide options for comprehension.
  • Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols.
  • Provide options for perception.

Provide multiple means of Action and Expression

  • Provide options for executive functions.
  • Provide options for expression and communication.
  • Provide options for physical action.

These 3 key areas are not merely a checklist of steps. Rather, UDL asks course designers and instructors to expect diversity in learners skills, sexual orientation, physical ability, language fluency, thinking styles and many more learner demographic areas. UDL implementation opens a discussion about environmental barriers for all demographics. Considering any barriers to learners before methods of delivery are developed requires flexibility, cross department participation, and resources. A cultural shift towards inclusive design for all learner demographics is both exciting and necessary.

Implementing UDL in Your Course

Getting started with UDL in your course might seem daunting. However, by starting small, and building incrementally, you can make a big impact for your students. The following are a few ways you might get started.

  • Select a specific challenge or issue. For example, if your course relies on a lot of specialized or new-to-your students terminology, consider additional ways for student to learn the terminology. Podcasts, captioned videos, diagrams, or infographics in addition to glossaries and other textual representations could support student learning.
  • Examine your learning outcomes. Focus especially on the ways you ask students to demonstrate their achievement, considering if there are additional ways students might demonstrate their learning. CAST’s UDL on Campus: Learning Goals offers a great entry point.
  • Look to areas where your students need additional support. You can even ask your students for input on what would help them be more successful and use their ideas to guide your changes.
  • Review your syllabus, using the UDL syllabus rubric to identify areas for improvement.

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