Defining Universal Design (UD)

What is Universal Design?

According to the Center for Universal Design, “Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”. Universal Design rests on seven principles for design, which serve as a heuristic for creating usable products and environments.

The “Seven Principles of Universal Design” include: 
  1. Equitable use ensures that the design is “useful to diverse abilities”;
  2. Flexibility in use ensures that “design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities”;
  3. Simple and intuitive use ensures that the “design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level”;
  4. Perceptible information ensures that the “design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities”;
  5. Tolerance for error works to minimize “hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions”;
  6. Low physical effort ensures that the “design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue”; and
  7. Size and space for approach and use ensures that the design affords “reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility” 

Although these seven principles of Universal Design can be adapted to make a wide range of products and environments accessible, it is worth noting that some disability studies scholars have critiqued these seven principles. For instance, Dolmage argues that “universal design has become a way to talk about changing space to accommodate the broadest range of users, yet consistently overlooks the importance of continued feedback from these users” (172). Moreover, Oswal and Meloncon argue that the seven principles are all too often reduced to a checklist, which “stand[s]-in for critical engagement with accessibility issues” and does not work to “reimagin[e] whole pedagogies” (67). However, these critiques do not discount the value of Universal Design. Rather, they recognize that Universal Design is an ongoing process that must be simultaneously proactive and responsive to the needs of user-students. As such, in addition to designing a curriculum with the principles of Universal Design in mind, WPAs should also design curricula with participatory design in mind, as well (i.e., the idea of giving student-users input into how they achieve course outcomes and goals).

Where did universal design originate?

Red Circle with letters UD in the center, signifying Universal Design

The term “Universal Design” comes from architect, Ronald Mace, and the associated seven principles of Universal Design were developed by a group at North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design. Although funding challenges have resulted in the Center for Universal Design no longer being active, the seven principles of Universal Design continue to influence the design of architecture, education, technology, and more. Additionally, while the seven principles of Universal Design were not created with the composition classroom in mind, they have been adapted by writing programs, composition instructors, and disability activists to create accessible learning environments in a move that it is sometimes called: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) or Universal Design for Instruction (UDI).


Why should Universal Design be important to WPAs or Composition Instructors?

Composition scholars and disability activists (Brizee, Sousa, and Driscoll; Dolmage; Hamraie; Hitt; Nielsen; Yergeau) have argued that Universal Design creates an accessible pedagogy in ways that benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. Putting this benefit aside, however, WPAs and Composition Instructors have a legal and ethical obligation to provide an equitable composition education to disabled students. This obligation requires that we make both the physical educational environment accessible, but also the education itself. As such, applying the principles of Universal Design offers a valuable starting point for offering an accessible and, resultantly, equitable composition education.

To learn about how to use the principles of Universal Design to make multimodal composition assignments accessible, Go to Next Page: UD Approaches for Multimodal Assignments –>

References (MLA):

  • Brizee, Allen, Morgan Sousa, and Dana Lynn Driscoll. “Writing Centers and Students with Disabilities: The User-centered approach, Participatory Design, and Empirical Research as Collaborative Methodologies.” Computers and Composition, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 341-366.
  • Dolmage, Jay. “Disability, Usability, Universal Design.” Rhetorically Rethinking Usability, ed. Susan Miller-Cochran and Rochelle L. Rodrigo. Hampton Press, 2009, pp. 167-190.
  • Hamraie, Aimi. “Crafting a Universal Design Methodology.” Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 223-253.
  • Hitt, Allison. “Access for All: The Role of Dis/ability in Multiliteracy Centers.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 1-7.
  • Nielsen, Danielle. “Universal Design in First-Year Composition–Why Do We Need It, How Can We Do It?” The CEA Forum, 2013, pp. 3-29.
  • North Carolina State University: Center for Universal Design. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  • Oswal, Sushil K. and Lisa Meloncon. “Saying No to the Checklist: Shifting from an Ideology of Normalcy to an Ideology of Inclusion in Online Writing Instruction.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 61-77.
  • Yergeau, Melanie. “Saturday Plenary Address: Creating a Culture of Access in Writing Program Administration.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 155-165.