Accessibility in your course means that all learners have equal access to learning, with particular attention to students with physical and cognitive disabilities. Universal Design for Learning (sometimes known as Universal Instructional Design) is a framework for designing courses that removes barriers to learning wherever possible, and that moves beyond physical concerns to consider all aspects of the learning environment. Academic accommodations and extenuating circumstances requests intersect with both accessibility and UDL.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching and learning that uses cognitive science around how people learn to remove as many barriers to learning for as many people as possible.

As an example, think of a room with a door. If the door has a doorknob, it will be hard to open for many people: those with no hands or fingers, those whose hands are full with other things, and those whose hands are too low or too high to reach the knob. A pushbar on the door would be a more universal design: now people might use their hip, hand, or shoulder to open the door. However others would still have difficulty because of the weight of the door or other obstacles. Perhaps adding an electric pushbutton would help. Or what about removing the door altogether, and having a corridor with a couple of turns to protect the privacy of those in the room?

None of these scenarios are truly universal, meaning they won’t always work for absolutely everyone. But the aspiration and the consideration are what matters—when we consider UDL, we are trying to do our best for every learner.

The Queen’s Accessibility Hub has information for educators. Their site features numerous ‘how-to’ guides for making instructor communications with students more accessible, whether in the form of documents, slide presentations, videos, emails, and other formats.

The Accessibility Hub suggests four key changes to enhance accessibility:

  • consider font choice (sans serif, no italics or shadowing)
  • describe non-text elements (charts, tables, logos, etc.)
  • caption audio and video, and provide a transcript
  • test for accessibility

Adopting guidelines of Universal Design for Learning allows instructors to teach in ways that are more accessible, often reducing the need for individual accommodations. That said, since universal design is always somewhat aspirational, it’s important that instructors understand and respect individual student accommodation needs. Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS) has developed resources for instructors that are available on their website. We at the CTL are happy to discuss accommodations questions with faculty, staff, and students, and work from the following principles:

  • Accommodations letters are the start of a conversation with a student about their learning needs and the way they intersect with course requirements
  • Instructors should never request information from a student about the disability itself. Conversations about what students need to learn are more respectful of student privacy.
  • Instructors should aim for flexibility as much as is reasonable and possible.

Accessibility and UDL in Practice

Examples of UDL in action.

UDL in Practice

Accessibility Checklist for Alternative Assessments


Additional Resources:

Universal Instructional Design Quick-Start Implementation Checklist from Guelph University

Universal Design for Learning interactive module from Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning and Human Rights and Equity Office

Universal Design for Learning website from CAST (leaders in UDL), featuring numerous text and video resources