Beyond Accessibility: How Can Universal Design for Learning Foster Inclusiveness?

Priscila Zigunovas
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Quick take: Being truly inclusive means considering different needs and abilities when designing course curriculum and content, instead of making accommodations. Most higher education institutions, however, are still far from achieving that outcome.

Most higher education institutions are struggling to become accessible and meet federal and regional laws and regulations, which involve a great deal of work and remediation. However, that’s only the first step towards being inclusive. Is your institution on the way to true inclusiveness?

What does that mean? Although inclusiveness and accessibility are closely related concepts, they have different meanings. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),1 an international community dedicated to developing web standards, while “accessibility addresses discriminatory aspects related to equivalent user experience for people with disabilities, including people with age-related impairments,” “inclusive design, universal design, and design for all involves designing products, such as websites, to be usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation.”

Inclusiveness is, therefore, a much broader concept. By pursuing inclusiveness instead of accessibility only, institutions may ensure sustainability and the fulfillment of the purpose to teach all.

Designing for All

When we look at accessibility, oftentimes what we are doing is looking at how we need to remediate or fix an environment in order for an individual with a disability to be able to engage with it. On the other hand, when we consider inclusiveness or inclusion, we are talking about an environment already prepared for individuals with disabilities to engage with. That’s the vision of Scott Ready, Blackboard’s principal strategist of accessibility.

“There’s always going to be a few exceptions, because we will never have 100% accessible environments. There’s always going to be a need for some kind of accommodation to be made from time to time, but if we can create those environments to be as inclusive as possible, then we’ll create a better environment for everyone,” says Read

Photo Scott Ready, Principal Strategist - Accessibility at Blackboard
Scott Ready, Principal Strategist – Accessibility at Blackboard.

Elizabeth Simister, Blackboard’s accessibility manager, recalls that inclusiveness is a bigger issue and working towards that can not only benefit people with disabilities, but also many others, such as students with English as a second language.

“My grandmother went to school at the age of six not knowing a word of English, only familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. If she had had access to audio files, if she had had access to text files, if she could easily look words up in Cyrillic, how much richer would her education have been?,” questions Simister, whose mission at Blackboard is to make sure that the company develops products that are accessible to as many people as possible.

Inclusiveness: A Long Way Ahead

Even though inclusiveness holds the promise of a brighter future for higher education, most institutions are still taking their first steps in the matter. All over the world, the number and the quality of initiatives towards accessibility and inclusiveness in higher education depend on the regional perspectives of accessibility, and on the laws issued by each country.

According to Ready, in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, there are very clear mandates around accessibility and the standards on how that accessibility is to be provided.

“As institutions work towards being accessible, there’s a number of them that are also working towards being inclusive. But I would say that the largest percentage of institutions right now are still focused on meeting the law of being accessible,” says Ready.

“As institutions work towards being accessible, there's a number of them that are also working towards being inclusive. But I would say that the largest percentage of institutions right now are still focused on meeting the law of being accessible,” Scott Ready.

Nevertheless, especially in the UK and Australia, institutions have already started to look and move towards inclusiveness, going beyond just the letter of the law, according to the expert. “And then there are some institutions, a very small percentage, that are still not even addressing accessibility,” says Ready.

That may be due to the several challenges institutions face when addressing accessibility. According to Elizabeth Simister, it’s not that easy to find people capable of developing an accessibility program.

“Besides, it takes money, and it takes time to set up and maintain such a program. And of course, you’ve got to have the buy-in from the instructors. They may not fully understand the benefits that inclusive classrooms provide. Those are the challenges that I see that may be slowing down full inclusion in higher education,” says Simister

Photo Elizabeth Simister, Accessibility Manager at Blackboard
Elizabeth Simister, Accessibility Manager at Blackboard.

From the Physical to the Digital Environment

Scott Ready compares the situation we live in now with the digital age to where we were in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and changes in the physical environment began to be made.

“When the Act was passed, municipalities had to do a lot of remediation,” Ready explains. “They had to go to every sidewalk where it intersected with the street and cut the curbs out. They had to add elevators and ramps to buildings. There was a lot of work and remediation that had to take place in the early 1990s in order for our physical environment to be accessible.”

Eventually, buildings began to be designed to be inclusive. Remediation was no longer needed because architects and engineers had considered accessibility as a critical design factor from the start. Hopefully, soon we will get to this point in the digital environment as well.

“We are making that transition and, yes, it is a lot of work right now, but once we get that remediation taken care of, then we’ll get to a point where accessibility and inclusiveness are just part of our normal design, and our learning environments will be designed that way from the beginning,” says Ready.

Little by little, institutions are becoming aware that it is much easier to design from an inclusive perspective from the beginning, rather than having to go back and try to remediate and fix the accessibility problems. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework developed to help institutions do exactly that

UDL: Giving Learners Choice

The UDL framework was first designed in the 1990s by David H. Rose, Ed.D., of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST).

UDL is based on three principles: providing multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.2 In practice, that means providing options for students to choose how they are going to learn, how they are going to present their ideas and how they are going to be assessed.

“The UDL pillars are all about providing options. We are not changing the objectives, all we are doing is providing some options as to how those objectives are being accomplished. UDL is a change of culture, a different way of looking at assessments, and a different way of looking at how we have historically provided education,” says Ready.

To demonstrate the importance of applying UDL and providing options, Ready provides assessment as an example. Tests are still the most common form of assessment in learning environments, although they are seldom used outside academia, which reveals a disconnection with the experience that the individual is going to have in the real-life environment. Not to mention that not every student tests well.

“If we are able to provide multiple ways of assessment of a learner’s comprehension of the content, have it be a quiz, a project, a portfolio, an oral presentation, or a job simulation, then we are creating a more universally designed learning environment, because then individuals are able to choose the method that best works for them, and we are also providing a more realistic and a better application of learning to the workplace or to the real world,” says Ready.

Technology can help your institution in the process of becoming accessible by automating a few steps along the way. Learn how

However, the implementation of UDL principles in higher education institutions is still in its early days. “UDL has been around for 20 years, and a lot of individuals understand the concept. I think the confusion comes as to how to apply UDL in the learning environment,” says Ready.

According to the expert, K-12 institutions have incorporated much more broadly the UDL approach than higher education. “Higher education tends to follow the approaches after K-12 has implemented them. I still have not seen, personally, a university or college that has applied UDL holistically throughout the institution,” he says.

That’s because most institutions are still at a point where they are focusing on accessibility only. “But once institutions feel the pressure of becoming accessible lightened, then the next step is going to be to start applying UDL principles more effectively, which will lead them to becoming more inclusive. I think that’s the next wave after we address the immediate need to create items to be more accessible,” says Ready.

4 Reasons Why UDL Increases Academic Effectiveness

Universal Design for Learning is all about providing learners with options so they can choose what works best for them. As a result, institutions can achieve higher quality teaching and learning and become much more effective.

1. UDL Benefits Students with Undisclosed Disabilities

There is a significant number of students that are not disclosing the existence of a disability to the institution. In many cases, they haven’t been diagnosed, so they might not precisely know about it yet. UDL allows the institution to meet the needs of all students, including those with undisclosed disabilities.

2. UDL Increases Retention and Engagement

Students often drop out of a course when they don’t feel engaged or when they can’t see the relevance of what they’re studying. UDL allows students to choose among different learning paths, and that impacts their motivation and attendance.

3. UDL Enhances Student Success

When students have access to course content in multiple formats, they can choose the ones that work best for them, regardless of disability. Every student has a favorite way to study, and aside from that, they have different needs and routines. Imagine a student who works during the day and doesn’t have much time to read. Maybe listening to an audio file during the commute would be a solution.

4. UDL Promotes Fairer Forms of Assessment

It is common that students who don’t perform well in written tests feel demotivated and disengaged. By providing students with choice regarding how they will be assessed – have it be a quiz, a project, a portfolio, an oral presentation, or a job simulation – UDL ensures that students will be evaluated in a way that allows them to demonstrate comprehension. This way, it can provide a better and more realistic application of learning to the workplace or the real world.


Everyone Can Learn Better with Universal Design for Learning

Elizabeth Simister, Accessibility Manager at Blackboard

Scott Ready, Principal Strategist – Accessibility at Blackboard


Elizabeth Simister – AFP Chhris Kleponis

Scott Ready – AFP John Carrington


1 World Wide Web Consortium. (2016, May 6). Related Aspects of a Web for All. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from

2 National Center On Universal Design for Learning. (2014, July 31). What is Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from



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