UDL vs Accessibility

Accessibility and Universal Design: A Comparison

Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) work together to create an inclusive educational environment for all students to thrive.  However, the two are not synonymous.  In this article, we will explore Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to examine how they differ and how one can support the other.


Accessibility applies directly to ensuring equal access to the physical spaces, course materials, websites and software needed to successfully do one’s job or fulfill one’s studies. For instance, a student with a visual impairment should have an equal or equivalent experience accessing a syllabus.  

People with disabilities often use assistive technologies such as wheel chairs, screen magnifiers, and closed captioning to access materials. Assistive technologies can increase student’s access IF environments, webpages, software, and digital materials are designed to work with these technologies.  For instance, if a website cannot be easily navigated with a keyboard, it is not accessible to for a person that uses a screen reader.  

Universal Design for Learning

UDL is a pedagogical framework focused on responding to learner diversity by designing flexible pathways to engage, represent, and express knowledge. For instance, rather than giving three multiple choice exams to, an instructor might use a variety of assignment types such as: multiple choice tests, group assignments, and individual projects, to provide options for students to express what they know.  

A Universally Designed course addresses, from the onset, possible barriers to student success, designs support materials and strategies to mitigate the barriers, and offers these materials to all students. Small things, like taking the first few minutes of class to point out upcoming due dates is particularly helpful for students with cognitive disabilities like ADHD, but also benefits all students—not to mention instructors will be more likely to receive more assignments on the actual due date streamlining the grading process.  UDL provides a design centered approach to building a curriculum focused on learner diversity and flexible pathways to student success.

UDL and Accessibility 

Although accessibility and UDL are not synonymous, they do support one another.  UDL provides a framework for designing courses with a diverse group of learners in mind, and accessibility is ensuring that all materials, activities, and technology used in the class are accessible for a students.  Captioned videos are a good example of how UDL and accessibility work together.  By captioning videos, you not only make them accessible for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing students, but this also benefits English language learners, and students that absorb information more thoroughly through reading. Accessible materials benefit all students, not only those with disabilities.

Applying Universal Design for Learning principles and ensuring that your course materials are accessible can be daunting.  Prioritizing and defining achievable goals is essential. 

To get started on creating accessible materials:

  • Identify the most common materials used to convey information in your class (PDF readings, PowerPoint lectures, videos, documents, etc.)
  • Visit the Accessibility Network at UC’s website to learn how to make your most frequently used materials accessible

To start applying UDL principles to your class:

Written for the Accessibility Network by CET&L's Assistant Director.

Watch a video about universal design built in to an architectural space for learning:

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