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Legal Module

The Role of Universal Design In Higher Education

The term universal design is now codified in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 as follows:

Universal design for learning. The term `universal design for learning' means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that --``(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and ``(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient'' (§103(a)(1)(24), codified at 20 U.S.C. §1003(24)).

In reflecting on the 18th anniversary of the ADA, the Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights commented on advances in promoting access to higher education for students with disabilities, noting that these advances leveled the playing field for students with disabilities, without lowering academic standards (Monroe, 2008). She also reflected on other progress that reflects the power of universal design, noting:

We now know that many changes originally intended to benefit students with disabilities often improve the college experience for everyone.  A college’s math course redesigned to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities turned out to be helpful to many other students in the math course.  Real time captioning intended for students who are deaf or hard of hearing provides every student two ways to receive the instructional material.  Captioned video has proven to be not only accessible but becomes searchable and reusable as components of future classes.  “Universal design” in web materials enhances the flexibility and cross platform usability of instructional sites for all students across different operating systems, browsers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and multimedia. 

These concepts are also reflected in the Principles of Universal Design for Instruction© (UDI) that were developed at the University of Connecticut. Although faculty are not legally mandated to use universal design features in their courses, UDI can be used to reduce the need for many accommodations. Moreover, by planning for the presence of students with disabilities and other diverse learners in the college classroom, learning can be enhanced for a wide range of other learners. For more information on UDI, see the Universal Design for Instruction Module.


Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, PL 110-315, 20 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.

Monroe, S. (2008, July). Dear colleague letter. Washington: U.S. Department of Education.

Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Legal Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/legal-module