Universal Design for Science

Universal Design for Science: Best for All

An overview of universal design for learning for science and the benefits for ALL students, not just those who are blind or visually impaired

“Our Burning Platform” Ed Summers said as we viewed a burning oil rig on the screen at the opening session of POSB “is the conversion of paper classrooms to tech-based classrooms”.  He went on to discuss how vital it will be for students with disabilities in the 21st century that technology (both hardware and software) be designed following the principals of Universal Design.  When the needs of users with a broad range of characteristics are considered, not only do the students with disabilities benefit but all students benefit. This blog will provide a description of Universal Design and some ideas as to how we, as Teachers of the Visually Impaired, can foster greater Universal Design in our students’ classrooms.
Ron Mace, one of the creators of Universal Design describes it as ” 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”.  This approach does not stigmatize or segregate the student with a disability and allows for all students to utilize the  space and equipment in most cases.  Universal design was originally conceptualized by a team of working architects and engineers.  The following seven principles were established by the CUD (Center for Universal Design) in 1997.  
  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Career services example: Job postings in formats accessible to people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Campus museum example: A design that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of display cases.
  3. Simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Assessment example: Testing in a predictable, straightforward manner.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Dormitory example: An emergency alarm system with visual, aural, and kinesthetic characteristics.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Instructional software example: A program that provides guidance when the student makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. Curriculum example: Software with on-screen control buttons that are large enough for students with limited fine motor skills to select easily.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. Science lab example: An adjustable table and work area that is usable by students who are right- or left-handed and have a wide range of physical characteristics and abilities.
From – Universal Design in Education: Principles and Applications. by Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD.
reach for the stars
As Ed Summers and Diane Brauners continued their presentation, they  introduced the  interactive digital iBook Reach for the Stars.  As they described Reach for the Stars,  the beauty of Universal Design became evident.   Not appropriate ONLY for the student with a visual impairment in the class, but accessible to all, this book has been created so that the student with a visual impairment can  utilize the built in accessibility features of the iPAD, while the other students  access the same iBook.  No specialized equipment is necessary, though a set of tactile overlays are used by the student with a visual impairment to more completely experience some of the content of the book.  All students benefit from sonification (the use of non-speech audio to communicate information) which is built into the software.  An example of sonification is found in “listening” to the information on a graph.    
How can Universal Design benefit your students in the general education classroom?  As the vast majority of students in science classes are in their home schools, itinerant TVIs bear the primary responsibility for facilitating the best  learning environment possible for their students .  By encouraging greater Universal Design within the general education classroom, the TVI will more successfully accomplish this by fostering greater participation by the classroom teacher.  

The following ideas are in no way exhaustive and I would welcome comments to this blog as to other ways to incorporate Universal Design into the general education science classroom.   

The following general ideas are from the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington
These are appropriate for any general education classroom.
  • outlines and other scaffolding tools
  • large, bold fonts on uncluttered overhead displays
  • speaking aloud all visual content presented
  • course materials available in accessible electronic formats
  • repeating student questions before answering them
  • minimizing distractions

Specific technology-related suggestions include the following.

  • Encourage the instructor and the district to choose equipment that allows greatest accessibility to the same information for the student with a visual impairment. 
  • Collaborate with the technology department as necessary to determine what the most appropriate technology for the student is.  
  • Check regularly with the student to determine if there are accessibility issues that should be addressed. 

Web access 

Encourage the instructor to provide Web access and web pages formatted so as to be accessible to all.  This is required according to the No Child Left Behind legislation.
The following link describes in detail how to create accessible web content.  Provide this link and info to the instructor and offer to assist as needed:  http://www.washington.edu/doit/universal-design-web-pages-class-projects 
These instructions are from  work by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.


When models are provided to the instructor for use by the student with a visual impairment,  if possible provide several models, so that the sighted students in the  class also benefit.  The classroom teacher will be more motivated to include them in the lesson and will become more familiar with the use of models for instruction.  
Universal Design truly does provide a win-win opportunity for both the student with a visual impairment and his sighted peers in class.   Both will benefit from the presentation of information through multiple modalities.  As classroom teachers become more familiar with Universal Design and convinced of it’s value, they will more naturally incorporate it into instruction.

Collage of universal design for science


By Laura Hospitál

Daniela Gissara sits at conference table at the United Nations general assembly transforming education summit and speaks into a microphone.

Watch our speech at the UN Transforming Education Summit

ocal chapter members of the Protestant Guild for the Blind listening to a talking book in Massachusetts, circa 1940.

Oral histories


School days: Sweethearts and secrets