Understanding the Overlap Between UDL and Digital Accessibility

November 29, 2022

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational methodology that focuses on providing a better experience for every student, including individuals with disabilities. The core idea is simple: Every student learns differently, and learning environments should reflect those differences.

Accessible digital resources can complement a UDL implementation strategy — but only when accessibility is treated as a priority. Here’s why.

Universal Design for Learning: A Brief Overview

UDL aims to limit the need for individual accommodations by building those accommodations into the design of the coursework. 

This is accomplished by considering the needs, abilities, and expectations of students when designing coursework. For example:

  • A teacher may ask students to write an essay, but also allow students to submit videos, podcasts, or other work that fulfills the assignment. 
  • UDL classrooms may be flexible spaces with designated areas for students who prefer to learn in groups or work alone. 
  • Teachers solicit feedback from the class to make improvements. 

The concepts of universal design were originally introduced to make architecture (such as college campuses and public school buildings) more useful for everyone. In another article, we provided an introduction to the key principles of universal design.

But over the last few decades, UDL has expanded considerably. Rather than focusing solely on physical barriers — for example, wheelchair ramps — UDL seeks to remove all potential barriers, including digital accessibility issues. By providing more flexibility to students, UDL aims to create more equity in education.

The Differences Between Digital Accessibility and UDL

Compared with UDL, digital accessibility has a much more narrow focus: The goal is to ensure that all materials — including videos, podcasts, live lectures, and websites — are accessible for as many users as possible. 

Of course, students can’t learn if they can’t access information, so digital accessibility is an essential part of UDL. But while UDL has some established practices, it doesn’t necessarily have established technical standards for digital content — and that’s an important distinction. 

WCAG and Digital Accessibility

Digital accessibility has well-established standards. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are widely used to evaluate the accessibility of web content, mobile apps, on-site kiosks, and other digital tools. 

WCAG consists of pass-or-fail success criteria, which are organized by four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

If a school or university adopts UDL without considering digital accessibility, they may encounter issues during implementation. Educational institutions must offer reasonable accommodations to students under Title II (and in some cases, Title III) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which generally means following WCAG. 

Related: DOJ Announces Title II Web Accessibility Regulations Are Coming: What’s It Mean?

Without digital accessibility, UDL isn’t truly universal

When an institution implements UDL without considering accessibility, some students may be left out of the conversation. 

In 2017, the University of California at Berkeley announced that it was cutting public access to more than 20,000 video lectures and podcasts due to accessibility issues. While offering those resources was beneficial to the public — and to many Berkeley students — the content wasn’t accessible for people with vision and hearing disabilities. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an investigation, and Berkeley pulled their library of content to address the problem.

Related: Inclusive Design Vs. Accessible Design: Understanding the Differences

Implementing UDL with a Focus on Accessibility

UDL is a proven methodology that benefits all students, but when instructors embrace universal design, they need to consider how their decisions will affect students with disabilities. 

Some key considerations to keep in mind: 

  • Instructional materials should not require a certain type of sensory perception.
  • A presentation that includes images should have accurate alternative text (also called alt text) for those images. 
  • Transcripts and captions should be provided for all audio content. 
  • Color alone should not be used to convey information, since some students may not perceive color (or have different cultural understandings of colors). 
  • Student presentations should also follow accessibility guidelines. This increases the student’s workload, but it’s an excellent opportunity to teach the importance of accessibility

Finally, educational materials must be equivalent — they must contain the same information. 

For example, if a teacher provides a video, they should ensure that the video has accurate captions and an accurate transcript. Students with disabilities shouldn’t be instructed to “just read the textbook instead.” Reading the textbook provides a different experience than watching the video, and students shouldn’t have limited options because of a disability.

While evaluating coursework for digital accessibility may not be easy, it’s a fundamental part of a successful UDL implementation. For more guidance, read our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset. 

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