Universal design provides people with disabilities greater access to the community and the workplace by removing or reducing barriers found in the environment. These principles, first outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are now being applied to instruction through IDEA '04 (Center for Applied Special Technology [CAST], 2004a). In the broadest sense, applying principles of universal design to instruction seeks to remove barriers that any individual might face when participating in instructional activities (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003). Universal design for learning (UDL) is a way to help all students, not just those with disabilities, to access the curriculum in nonstandard ways. Most often, UDL has technology at the core of its solution to finding increased ways for students to approach and participate in instruction. UDL varies from typical special education techniques in many ways (Bremer et al., 2002; Whitbread, 2004). Here are a few examples: 

  1. Unlike accommodations and modifications made for students with disabilities, universal design creates alternatives open to all students.
  2. Universal design techniques are not added to the instructional routine but, rather, are part of the standard delivery of instruction.
  3. Multiple and flexible methods and options of presentation, expression, and engagement are provided.

The goal of UDL is for more students to be able to access the content of instruction, thereby reducing the number of students who need special accommodations and supports. This goal is accomplished by creating multiple pathways for students to access the curriculum and the learning environment (CAST, 2004b). Let's think again about the ADA law and then see how its ideas can influence how we think about the curriculum. ADA requires that the physical environment be made more accessible. Removing barriers is necessary so that people with disabilities can participate more fully in events and activities of daily life, but many people without disabilities benefit as well. For example, curb-cuts enable people who use wheelchairs to use sidewalks, cross streets, and move independently as they shop or to get from a parking lot to a restaurant to meet friends. But curb cuts also help mothers with strollers walk through neighborhoods and help people with shopping carts get from the grocery store to their cars.

Let's translate this concept about opening access to the community into making the curriculum more accessible and participation in classroom activities easier. Here's an example. Current technology allows publishers to produce e-books—that is, electronic or digital versions of traditionally printed books—easily and inexpensively. Because of these electronic (digital) versions, print does not have to be the only way to access content presented in books. For students with low vision who have difficulty reading standard-size print on a page, the computer can be used to immediately enlarge the print or to change its mode of access from seeing to listening. Thus a social studies text might be "heard" instead of "read." By using the same electronic version of the book, the computer can also convert print to braille. In this case, blind students who use tactile means of accessing print can read the same social studies text and complete the same assignments as their classmates without disabilities. And now, students do not have to wait for a manually produced braille version to come from some centralized resource center. The benefits of making digital versions of textbooks available to students with disabilities should be obvious. IDEA '04 encourages the development of universal design features so that more students can access the general education curriculum. Also, because the burden of supplying digital versions of textbooks is no longer substantial, IDEA '04 requires publishers to make digital versions of their textbooks available to school districts whose states sign up with the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAS Development and Technical Assistance Centers, 2005).

The benefits of e-books and the availability of universal design can be important for students without disabilities as well (Muller & Tschantz, 2003). Think about students learning English, who could profit from being able both to see and to hear text passages. UDL allows the broadest spectrum of learners to access the curriculum: students with varying learning style preferences, those with disabilities, and those with other special needs. As you can imagine, the advantages of applying principles of universal design in teaching these students are great. Of course, teachers need to be sure that Web sites utilized to enhance instruction are accessible (Hoffman, Hartley, & Boone, 2005). For some students, barriers that inhibit access to the general education curriculum and participation in instruction with their classmates without disabilities vanish when UDL features are applied to classroom situations. Use your imagination and see how many applications of universal design you can create to solve challenges associated with access to the curriculum, extracurricular activities, environment, and community. Each new idea can make a world of difference for many more students with disabilities!