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The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) emerged as a result of the universal design movement in architecture and product development that began in the early 1980s. At that time, society began to address access to public facilities by eliminating architectural barriers. The concept of universal design was created by architect Ron Mace, who was frustrated by the many buildings that did not take into account all of the different kinds of people who would be using them. He defined universal design as:

“…the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need of adaptation or specialized design.”

As Mace explained it, universal design would “consider the needs of the broadest possible range of users from the beginning.” The idea was that products, buildings and environments would not need to be retrofitted after the fact (say, by adding a wheelchair ramp to an existing office building), but would, from conception, be developed to be accessible to everyone (wheelchair access would be a part of a building’s original design). According to Mace, architects and product developers should adapt to the people they mean to serve, rather than forcing those people to adapt to their environments and products.

Researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) realized that some of the basic elements of universal design – its flexibility, inclusiveness, foresight in anticipating people’s needs – could be applied in the field of education. And they have found that, just as with universal design in architecture and product development, UDL winds up helping all of the students in a classroom, regardless of ability or disability.

UDL in the Community

Two common examples of universal design are curb cuts and closed captioning of television. Curb cuts were originally built into sidewalks to provide easier access for wheelchair users, and closed captioning was first developed so people with hearing difficulties could access television. Both of these examples of universal design have helped the people they were meant to help. The surprise of universal design in each of these cases, though, is that it has also proven to be useful to other people. For instance, curb cuts are used by many people including bicyclists, skaters and parents pushing strollers. Closed captioning has been useful for those who want to watch television in health clubs and noisy restaurants. Closed captioning is also beneficial for people who are trying to learn the English language by watching television. Therefore, universal design has been shown to be a good thing for everyone.

Whether in architecture or in education, it is easier and more effective to build solutions for everyone from the start rather than retrofitting solutions later on.