Universal Design, Technology, and Education

by Christian David Borges

The concept of Universal Design, with it’s origins in architecture and urban planning, has had a prolific and profound influence on other aspects of our societal makeup.  The same underpinning principles, from which Universal Deign emerged, namely accessibility and equitable treatment for all, have also gained wide acceptance in other areas, particularly in educational philosophy and pedagogy.  As awareness of different learning styles and multiple intelligences become widely accepted, the understanding and insistence that all students have equal access to education and prescribed curricula have become universal.  Technological advancements have made the adaptation of Universal Design into the realm of education both relatively simple and ubiquitous. Computers, the internet, instructional software, multimedia and telecommunications have all made education more accessible, forever changing the way teachers educate and students learn.  

Probably no other technological advancement has so revolutionized all aspects of teaching and learning than the computer.  Often referred to as the great equalizer in regards to students with exceptionalities, computer technologies offer students with exceptionalities the opportunity to access and interact with information in a variety of ways.  For instance, with the aid of simple and common word processing programs, students can alter digitized text by changing font, font size, and colour, as well as cutting and pasting and reorganizing information into manageable chunks. Doing this provides students with Learning Disabilities access to information who otherwise may have difficulties organizing information, and to students who struggle with short-term memory recall, such as those with Acquired Brain Injuries.  The ability to create and manipulate digitized text also assists students with fine motor difficulties who may have trouble creating handwritten output.  Specialized computers, such as those found in the Language Labs across the Toronto District School Board, are equipped with special software, such as Kurzweil 3000 and Read and Write, which allow students to change written text to speech as well as allowing students to digitize and manipulate textbooks and other hard-copy material.  These programs benefit students with Learning Disabilities, particularly those with language and reading difficulties, by allowing students to hear the text without necessarily modifying the text’s grade level or age-appropriateness.  Other programs such as Dragon Naturally Speaking allow students to turn speech into text thus allowing students who have trouble physically forming letters or those who have physical exceptionalities to create work independently.  With current advancements in both computer and internet technologies, it is possible for students to utilize instructional software, research information via a visit to a website, and engage with multimedia and even communicate via telecommunications, which are routed through the internet.

The basic principles of accessibility and flexibility that defines Universal Design are epitomized in the Internet.  Not only is it a network of information and multimedia, the internet provides a way for people to connect and communicate instantaneously and in real time.  It allows people with disabilities to “pursue careers, research, and friendships as never before.” (DO-IT, 2009) In its simplest form, the Internet allows all students to have access to information which can allow them to expand their knowledge of a particular topic or gather background information that may clarify new concepts.  According to The Access Center, an organization that specializes in adapting Universal Design into educational environments, the principles of Universal Design dictate that teaching tools be salient and age appropriate. (American Institutes for Research, 2004) The Internet, as a teaching tool, allows students to “find current and real-world examples of concepts that can make information more salient and grounded." (American Institutes for Research, 2004) For students with Mild Intellectual Disability, for instance, who have great difficulty with abstract concepts, concrete real-world examples allow them to understand new and more difficult concepts easier.The Internet is also an alternative avenue through which students can communicate with others and participate in colloquial discussions and distant education.  The Internet also provides students with physical and other exceptionalities to access education in new and innovative ways through the use of online telecommunications technologies.  

Telecommunications have become ubiquitous in all aspects of daily lives.  Specialized telecommunications technology via the internet tools “such as those used for distance learning, telecommuting, and videoconferencing enable [people] to connect with one another from almost anywhere and at anytime.” (Burgstahler, 2006a)  For students who may be deaf or hard of hearing, this way of communicating or accessing a course will negate the need for special accommodations such as FM systems.  Students who are physically unable to attend a course in given location will also benefit. Students with physical exceptionalities who may require accommodations such as ramps, special transportation, special seating, or a host of other needs can participate in an online course without such adaptations.  Another form of telecommunications technology, which can be used with students with speech difficulties, are text options or modified keyboards to communicate,  which students can access and engage with what they are learning.  Telecommunications technology, mainly through the Internet, can be utilized by students who require extra assistance with the content they are learning at school.  An organization called Ability Online has developed an online support network where students with Learning Disabilities can access tutors 24 hours a day.  In this way students are never left without academic support. Beyond the telecommunications aspect, current Internet technologies allow students to engage with concepts through access to multimedia, which greatly enhance the educational experience.

A teacher may employ the use of multimedia and telecommunications technologies to ensure that the principles of Universal Design are adhered to in the classroom.  The use of multimedia and telecommunication for instructional purposes allows a teacher to represent a concept in a variety of ways as well as appealing to the students’ multiple intelligences and learning styles. (American Institutes for Research, 2004)  By using computer-based simulations or virtual tours that include text, audio and/or video description, self-directed “tours”, and a host of other aids, many students can engage and understand difficult concepts. (Burgstahler, 2006) The same can be said for the use of video documentary, computer programs and audio resources.  For students with language or reading Learning Disabilities these types of tools will allow them to understand new concepts without relying on reading.  Utilizing captioning on certain types of multimedia such as DVDs and television programs, students who are deaf or hard of hearing will have access to the same content as other students. Students who have Learning Disabilities that affect their processing abilities also “benefit from hearing and see¬ing the spoken word simultaneously.” (Burgstahler, 2006) This allows students to make the connections between the content information and the meaning behind what they are watching.  

The use of instructional software allows students of all abilities to engage with material and content that is “challenging, salient, and age-appropriate.”   Today, many textbooks from a wide range of subjects are available with corresponding software. (American Institutes for Research, 2004) Such software often provides text-to-speech features, decoding and comprehension support, and additional information. For students with reading difficulties like dyslexia, students can use the instructional software to utilize “decoding supports and text-to-speech features [often] incorporated into digitized … books, which enhances their ability to access this content.” (Burgstahler, 2006) In some cases, these resources also come with “educational games” or “fun” activities, which students can engage with and acquire skills and practice.  This type of instructional software does not differ from the content or grade level of the corresponding traditional textbook but instead allows students to access the content in a different way.  In this way, instructional software adheres to the notion of Universal Design by way of allowing flexibility and openness of access.  A recent study found that struggling students who engaged with texts in digital formats where decoding and other supports were available were more likely to be motivated to read because the content was grade appropriate yet challenging enough. (Burgstahler, 2006) Another aspect to instructional software is that many of the programs available, such as the Math Quest CD-ROMs, are created with built-in scaffolding and cues.  These types of programs “assist with activities such as word recognition, decoding, and problem solving.” (Burgstahler, 2006) This type of software allows students to build on or access previous lessons or ideas when working on new material.This type of design works well for students who may have recall difficulties.  

Computers, the internet, multimedia and telecommunications, and instructional software have allowed educators to adopt the concept of Universal Design both at the planning level and the teaching level, ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to learn from the same material and content, without necessarily having to alter the content to meet the needs of the student.  The conventional materials (i.e. textbooks, books, “pen and paper”, etc.) used in classrooms rely heavily on the mastery of text-based, language-oriented learning.  To a large extent, this excludes students who have language, processing, and even memory difficulties.  These materials also lack the flexibility of more advanced technologies, “often requir[ing] students to adapt to the curriculum.” (Firchow, 2002) In a sense, the more traditional materials tend to limit the ways in which teachers present the content, the ways in which students participate or interact with the content and the ways in which students respond to the content. Technology allows students to access knowledge in many ways and is flexible to ensure that a wide range of students are able to take part in their academic lives.

Christian Borges is a Special Education Teacher for the Toronto District School Board in Ontario.  For the past eight years, Christian has been actively promoting and training other educators on the integration of assistive technology and technology into the everyday learning experience of students.  You can visit his classroom internationally recognized website at http://mrborges.edublogs.org.


American Institutes for Research. “Universal Design to Support Access to the General Education Curriculum”. Washington DC: The Access Center. 2004 (link no longer active)

Burgstahler, Sheryl. “Creating Video and Multimedia Products that are Accessible to People with Sensory Impairments”. DO-It Program. Seattle: University of Washington, 2006.

Burgstahler, Sheryl. “Use of Telecommunications Products by People with Disabilities”. DO-It Program. Seattle: University of Washington, 2006a. 

World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design. Dir: DO-IT Program. DO-IT Program. 2009.

Firchow, Nancy.  “Universal Design for Learning—Improved Access for All”. Schwablearning.org, 2002. (2016, No longer available on-line)