8 Universal Design


A big part of the open education movement is the belief that education must be available to everyone, which means supporting the creation of free, open, and accessible educational resources. We are actively committed to making OER created at Iowa as usable and inviting as possible, and this chapter is intended to help you design your OER with accessibility in mind. It and others in this section, are adapted from BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit by Amanda Coolidge, Sue Doner, and Tara Robertson[1]. I would invite you to review the full toolkit for more information about making your work accessible and inclusive.

Universal Design

Universal Design is the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) that are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances). Universal Design emerged from the slightly earlier concept of being barrier-free, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive technology and assistive technology. It also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations.

Let’s review two common definitions of Universal Design:

Definition 1: Universal Design or Universal Instructional Design (UID)

…an approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional and evaluation strategies. This approach provides academic access to a broad range of learners, including students with disabilities, while maintaining academic standards […] reducing the need to having to retrofit after a course is already underway[2]

Definition 2: Universal Instructional Design (UID)

…an approach to designing course instruction, materials and content to benefit people of all learning styles without adaptation or retrofitting. UID provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. UID allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the instructor monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods… It should be noted that UID does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access.[3]

 Why Universal Design?

You may be surprised to learn that during the 2020-21 school year, 15% of all public school students received special education services, and a full ⅓ of those students had learning disabilities. These students benefit directly from accessible course materials since these materials work well with assistive technologies, like screen readers.

Yet as the University of Minnesota points out, accessible design can help many people who do not have disabilities. Captions on videos, for instance, can help English language learners better understand a video presentation, and a transcript of a podcast can help students who need to do their coursework in very noisy or very quiet places.

For our purposes, we frame the practice of using Universal Design in a holistic and manageable way and begin by addressing the barriers that are easy to anticipate and proactively remediate. This chapter, therefore, will provide guidance if the answer to any of the following questions is “yes.”

  • Do I have visual materials that present core concepts that not all students may be able to see or understand?
  • Do I have multimedia materials (e.g., audio, video) that present core concepts that not all students may be able to be hear, see, or otherwise access?
  • Do I have documents that present core concepts in a format that not all students may be able to access?

Using Personas as a Development Tool

Designers use personas to represent the different types of people who might access a website or product. Using personas can help you keep in mind the types of students and their various abilities while you’re developing content. These personas can also be used to introduce different types of hardware and software that students typically use.

Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery have included a set of personas in their book A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experience that are specific to post-secondary students with print disabilities. These are some of the students who will be reading the open textbooks that you write and interacting with the multimedia you create. Because the personas are under copyright, I have not included them here, but I would encourage you to visit the authors’ book excerpt, posted on UX Magazine’s website, which lists all the personas, their characteristics, and the assistive technologies they use. You can keep these personas in mind as you work to make your OER accessible.

  1. Adapted from BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit. Authored by Amanda Coolidge, Sue Doner, and Tara Robertson. Provided by BCCampus. Located at https://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit/. Licensed under CC BY: Attribution
  2. University of Victoria, "Universal Instructional Design (UID)," Centre for Accessible Learning, accessed March 27, 2018, https://www.uvic.ca/services/cal/staff/universal-instructional-design/index.php
  3. Ohio State University, "Universal Design for Learning," Partnership Grant: Fast Facts for Faculty, accessed March 27, 2018, https://ada.osu.edu/resources/fastfacts/Universal_Design.htm.


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Getting Started with Open Educational Resources Copyright © 2019 by Mahrya Burnett, Jenay Solomon, Heather Healy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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