Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment for All Learners

July 18, 2016

Universal Design (UD) is a concept originally used in the field of architecture to describe the design of a physical environment accessible to all users, both with and without disabilities (Rao & Tanners, 2011). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can be applied to instruction as a model to address the challenges of providing accessible learning environments (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015) for a variety of learners (CAST, 2011). In order to design a curriculum to meet the diverse needs of learners and reduce barriers for students with disabilities in online learning environments, UDL is guided by three principles: providing multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2014). Figure 1 further explains the principles of UDL.

Application of UDL in Distance Education

Distance education often times provides a non-inclusive environment for exceptional learners, particularly those with functional disabilities (Steyaert, 2005); this can have legal and enrollment implications for distance education programs. When the universal design of the curriculum, media, and technological tools are not considered in the planning of online courses, the likelihood of the learning environment being accessible to all learners decreases (Burgstahler, 2002). Instructor application of UDL principles to develop online courses creates learning environments that can accommodate a diverse student population (Rao & Tanner, 2011); this is especially important to distance education when all disabilities become invisible. UDL, when applied in online courses, increases the likelihood of meeting compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Additionally, UDL supports the implementation of appropriate strategies and accommodations, and reduces the barriers that students with disabilities could experience in online learning environments.

When designing your online courses consider UDL as a foundation for establishing a learning environment that not only supports your students with disabilities, but also fosters an environment where all students can thrive. Your added efforts in online course creation can have a significant impact on the success of your students in your class.

Universal Learning Design graphic

Fig. 1 Summary of Universal Design for Learning Principles

UDL for SWD by KLH is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This graphic features information from ISTE, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.


Burgstahler, S. (2002). Distance learning: Universal design, universal access. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Journal, 10(1), 32-61.

CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2014). UDL Guidelines—Version 2.0. Retrieved from

Rao, K., Edelen-Smith, P., Wailehua, C. (2015). Universal design for online courses: Applying principles to pedagogy. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance, and e-Learning, 30(1).

Steyaert, J. (2005). Web-based higher education: the inclusion/exclusion paradox. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 23(1/2), 67-78.

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