Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

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.


Campus Supports

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

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that aims to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all by providing students with multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. When done well, UDL has the ability to provide flexibility, allowing all students the ability to connect their unique ways of understanding and learning to the essential requirements of the class, course, and program of study.

Queen’s Student Accessibility Services supports and encourages the implementation of UDL that:

  • Promotes instructors’ pedagogical creativity and exploration. Allows for multiple ways of representing the essential material of a class, course, and/or program of study
  • Recognizes each student’s unique way of understanding. Allows students to engage with essential material in multiple ways
  • Highlights each student’s unique strengths. Allows students to express and demonstrate independent learning in multiple ways

In supporting and encouraging the usage of UDL, Queen’s Student Accessibility Services acknowledges that:

  • UDL is integrated and foundational. UDL must be integrated into the curriculum planning from the start to ensure it is foundational to course development rather than additive
  • UDL is active and ongoing. UDL must be actively and continually implemented into classrooms. UDL is an ongoing process of engagement, creativity, and reflexivity
  • UDL and accommodations are both important, necessary, and required. While UDL does improve accessibility, it does not remove all barriers to access for which students with disabilities may seek accommodations. UDL does not remove the necessity to accommodate students.


Ventus connects students with accommodations, instructors, Queen’s Student Accessibility Services, and the Exams Office in the process to request, assess, and implement academic accommodations.  If you are listed as the instructor of record in PeopleSoft, you should have access to your course in Ventus.
Login: Ventus Academic Accommodations Portal
Documentation and videos: Ventus Support website
Need Access? Instructors of record can authorize access to their Ventus class by submitting a request to: Access for Teaching Assistants, Staff, or Instructors
Need help?  The Centre for Teaching and Learning is providing support for instructors in their use of Ventus.   

UDL Basics

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that helps to guide the creation of materials, methods, and assessments for diverse learners, recognizing that “variability [among learners] is the rule, not the exception” (David Rose, from the CAST organization).

With UDL, instructors can work to remove barriers to education and empower students by building in options that allow for increased student autonomy, choice, and motivation.

It is important to recognize that despite its name, UDL can never be truly universal, and students will always have needs for accommodations that expand beyond adjustments you may make to your course using the principles of UDL. This is not a failure of your work or of UDL, but a recognition that, like everything else in education, one model cannot encapsulate the whole of human diversity.

UDL should therefore be thought of as a tool in one’s educational toolbox, best implemented with a “yes, and” OR ‘plus one’ mindset, rather than an “either or” approach. The principles of UDL are something to supplement accommodation processes and imbue accessibility into courses, rather than to replace accommodations altogether. It may be helpful to focus on the word “design” in the acronym, to see UDL as an active “way to plan, to foresee, to imagine the future.” (Dolmage, 2017, p.119).

The information and resources offered below provide an overview of the key tenets of UDL using ‘plus one’ thinking to give you simple ways to slowly make your course more accessible.

Three Principles of UDL

1. Multiple means of representation

This principle asks you to present and share information in varied ways with your students to address the WHAT of learning.

Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend the information presented to them. Factors such as sensory or learning disabilities, language barriers, or cultural differences may impact the ways and speed at which students approach content. Ways to present information or to make the information you’re presenting more accessible might include:

  • Providing information on key concepts in multiple mediums (e.g., text and video; podcast and reading)
  • Captioning videos
  • Making sure your PDFs are accessible using Snapverter or Ally
  • Providing Word docs instead of PDFs where possible
  • Ensuring that your onQ page is accessible
  • Planning ahead to make sure content is available in the necessary accessible formats.
  • Including Alt-Text for all graphs and images
  • Assigning books that have an audiobook option available
  • Including graphics alongside text explanations
  • Providing transcripts of lectures
  • Using accessible slides for lectures/tutorials/seminars and giving access to slides ahead of time

2. Multiple means of action and expression

This principle asks you to have a variety of ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge and express what they know to address the HOW of learning.

Learners differ the ways that they navigate learning environments, both online and in person, as well as how they express what they know. Disabilities, language barriers, cultural preferences, executive function capacity, and family knowledge of the university system will all impact how students exist in the educational environment. There is not one way to express learning that will suit all learners at all times. Ways that students can show you they are achieving learning outcomes may include:

  • Active learning/participate and write about the experience
  • A research paper/lab report/analysis
  • A narrative piece, positionality reflection, or poem
  • Discussion in class, over email, onQ discussion forums, or meeting in person
  • A podcast or video
  • Concept maps or infographics
  • Annotated bibliographies
  • An alternate syllabus or reading list for the course
  • Written, open-book, asynchronous, unproctored final exams
  • In-person or virtual oral exams
  • A student-led/chosen art project of another medium
  • Other kinds of either formative or summative assessments

If your course includes participation grades, aim to provide a variety of ways for students to participate that are equally valued, rather than prioritizing speaking-up in class. Discussion boards, weekly reading reflections, and/or small group work can be less intimidating for some students.

An accessibility checklist for some of these alternative assessments can be found on the CTL website.

3. Multiple means of engagement

This principle asks you to use a variety of activities, interactions, and resources for students to engage with to address the WHY of learning.

Learners differ in how they view learning and success, as well as how they can be engaged or motivated to learn. Cultural values, background knowledge, familial expectations, personal relevance, and other factors can all impact how students look to engage in the course material. Some ways that students engage with the course might include:

  • Active learning techniques
  • Reading and reflecting
  • Guided group work
  • Small group or breakout group work
  • Think, Pair, Share
  • Teaching each other
  • Creating things (dioramas, maps, etc.)
  • Discussions (in person, through forums)
  • Chunked lectures

Regardless of method, the important thing to remember is that every student will be motivated to succeed in the course by different things, and their definition of success might look radically different from your own, or the student next to them. Asking students to identify their own goals in the course and encouraging them in their individual pursuits will help to foster collaboration, and sustain effort and persistence.

So, Where Do I Start?

The three principles of UDL have been developed out by CAST into further guidelines and checkpoints. The UDL anti-checklist further outlines these three principles and simple, actionable steps you can take to implement them in your classroom.

Other great places to start include re-evaluating your syllabus and course policies, exploring how language impacts the accessibility of your classroom, and looking into alternative assignments or ungrading.

Further Reading and Resources:

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press.

Katz, J. (2015). Implementing the Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning: Effects on teachers’ self-efficacy, stress, and job satisfaction in inclusive classrooms K-12. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(1), 1–20.

Kieran, L., & Anderson, C. (2019). Connecting Universal Design for Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching. Education and Urban Society, 51(9), 1202–1216.

Meyer, Rose, D. H., Gordon, D. T., & Rose, D. H. (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. CAST Professional Publishing, an imprint of CAST, Inc.

O’Neill, J. L. (2021). Accessibility for All Abilities: How Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design Combat Inaccessibility and Ableism. 9(1), 1–15.

Walters, S. (2010). Toward an Accessible Pedagogy: Dis/ability, Multimodality, and Universal Design in the Technical Communication Classroom. Technical Communication Quarterly, 19(4), 427–454.

Womack, A.M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494–525.

Accessibility and UDL Misconceptions

“Every act of teaching is an accommodation because it creates certain conditions for students to learn and display learning” (Womack, 2017, p.497).

As with any other new practice or process, learning about and starting to use UDL can be intimidating, overwhelming, and come with built in biases and misgivings. With UDL these misgivings can be compounded by ableist narratives built into the very foundation of the educational system, narratives that can be hard to identify at first glance. Some of these concerns include:

  • That disabled students are trying to take advantage of the system or use accommodations that they could do without
  • That students with accommodations have an unfair advantage
  • That freely providing accommodations or using UDL will lower course standards

While prominent narratives in the university, these concerns are unfounded, with research showing that the opposite is true.

  • It is estimated that only half of disabled students disclose their disabilities and many forego accommodations that they need to succeed in order to avoid stigma
  • Students with accommodations face considerable social and academic stigma
  • Building access and UDL into your course increases the capacity for students to learn and display their learning in meaningful ways, allowing for deeper connections across course content

Using UDL is a way to invite students into conversation with the course material in ways that are accessible, equitable, and meaningful for them. Building access into your course is beneficial to all students, but especially disabled students who are unable to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to receive formal accommodations due to lack of information, insufficient healthcare access, financial barriers, medical racism, or other factors. UDL is also a way to expand beyond impairment-specific accommodations that may neglect other invisible disabilities, socio-cultural factors, or personal circumstances.

UDL is not a substitute for formal accommodations or academic consideration, but a tool to be used alongside them, extending access, care, and meaningful education beyond the bounds of paperwork. It moves accommodation from just a formal process to the most basic act of teaching, where adaptations are continually made to support learning.

So, What is UDL?

UDL is:

  • A process, a means rather than an end
  • A verb, not a noun
  • A way to promote student autonomy and transform passivity into engagement
  • Valuable for all students, but centers disabled students, especially multiple marginalized disabled students
  • Based in the recognition of difference and individual learning journeys
  • Proactive

UDL is not:

  • A replacement for accommodations or academic considerations
  • A watering down of course content
  • A practice that compromises rigor
  • A one-size-fits-all solution or checklist approach
  • Universal
  • Reactive

 “Inclusion and rigor are only incompatible when rigor is defined as exclusion and inflexibility. When rigor is defined as difficulty, they are complementary values” (Womack, 2017, p.497). Ultimately, the way to teach difficult material well is to make it more accessible. In this vein of thinking, UDL encourages you to examine “pinch points” in your course—places where students consistently ask for accommodations, get confused, or require ongoing clarification. Pinch points often signal spaces where UDL might be implemented.

When you come across a pinch point:

  1. Ask whether the task or content at hand be achieved/learned/engaged in a different way with the same learning outcome
  2. Notice what judgements around your students or your own teaching come up in this reflection process
  3. Are any of the judgements you’re passing based on the assumption that you or your students should be learning or teaching in specific ways?
    1. Where did you learn that this is the way it “should” be done? Does that still hold value for you or your students?
  4. If there is another more accessible way to meet the same goal that aligns better with your teaching values, do it! If you can’t change the pinch point entirely:
    1. Extend the time for the point, either reviewing material or providing extended deadlines.
    2. Offer supplementary material in a variety of mediums so that even if you can’t address the content in class in a different way, options are available.
    3. Consider whether you can add just one more way for the task to be learned/engaged/assessed by using this UDL anti-checklist.

Implementing UDL can require you to confront internal biases and reflect on your work, but it is important to remember that simple changes can make a big difference. You do not need to change everything all at once, but rather you can choose a few suggested strategies and build on your successes. A great place to begin is in thinking about the language and rhetoric you use in the classroom and how it sets the tone for your work.

Broderick, A., & Lalvani, P. (2017). Dysconscious ableism: Toward a liberatory praxis in teacher education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 21(9), 894–905.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press.

Florian, L. (2015). Conceptualising Inclusive Pedagogy: The Inclusive Pedagogical Approach in Action. In J. M. Deppeler, T. Loreman, R. Smith, & L. Florian (Eds.), International Perspectives on Inclusive Education (Vol. 7, pp. 11–24). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69–79.

Hanesworth, P., Bracken, S., & Elkington, S. (2019). A typology for a social justice approach to assessment: Learning from universal design and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(1), 98–114.

Khouri, M., Lipka, O., & Shecter-Lerner, M. (2022). University faculty perceptions about accommodations for students with learning disabilities. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 26(4), 365–377.

Lowenthal, P. R., Humphrey, M., Conley, Q., Dunlap, J. C., Greear, K., Lowenthal, A., & Glacumo, L. A. (2020). Creating Accessible and Inclusive Online Learning" Moving Beyond Compliance and Broadening the Discussion. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 21(2), 1–21.

Walters, S. (2010). Toward an Accessible Pedagogy: Dis/ability, Multimodality, and Universal Design in the Technical Communication Classroom. Technical Communication Quarterly, 19(4), 427–454.

Womack, A.M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494-525.

Scheduling the Semester

When scheduling the semester, including assigning activities, exams, and due dates for assignments, try to keep accessibility in mind. This may not always be feasible depending on the size of your course, external requirements from your department, or other conflicting timelines, but when possible try to model compassionate and accessible scheduling by considering the following:

What time of day assignments are due:
Many instructors opt for 11:59PM deadlines to give students the most amount of time on the day of the deadline to complete the assignment as well as the greatest flexibility around the time of day students may find themselves being productive; however, some argue that late deadlines encourage cramming and lack of work/life balance. When assigning the time that an assignment is due, consider:

  • How large the assessment is
  • What kinds of work are required to complete it (i.e., exams may be more prone to cramming than writing papers)
  • Your own needs for grading timelines

How work is dispersed throughout the semester:
When assigning work over the semester, consider the workload for your students by using this Course Workload Estimator and then evaluate:

  • How close assessments are to each other
  • How the course workload might interact with other courses your students are in and whether you can avoid assessments during peak workload times (e.g., midterm week, final week of semester)
  • Whether you can ‘scaffold’ assignments to help with time management for your students, as well as assist with your own grading.

Where deadlines are positioned in relation to long weekends or breaks:
Where possible, avoid putting deadlines or assessments immediately after long weekends or mid-term breaks to promote rest and relaxation during these periods of time and reduce burnout.

Whether to use hard deadlines or submission periods:
Depending on the nature of the assessments in your course, you may opt to use hard deadlines, submission periods, or a combination of the two. Submission periods, or instructor-set ranges are extended time frames where redundancy is built in. Students can choose what deadline works best for them, while also not falling behind or taking on late penalties. Some keys to success for submission periods include:

  • Keeping the submission period short as beyond a week’s length the benefits and efficacy of this method tend to diminish. Users of submission periods suggest 6 day periods, with the final deadline the day before the week passes again.
  • Encouraging earlier submissions by grading in the order that assignments are submitted.
  • Encouraging earlier submissions by offering more feedback to those that submit in the first few days.

Submission periods not only build in flexibility to your students’ schedules, making your course more accessible, but can minimize stress of those doing grading by minimizing the amount of work received at once. This technique allows you to balance student needs against your own, modelling compassion for all in the classroom. Further, offering benefits for early submission, rather than penalties for late submission promotes student empowerment, and works to help minimize procrastination and day-of submissions which some studies have shown to be correlated with lower performance.

Whether to include a grace period:
Depending on when in the week or day you decide to set deadlines, as well as whether you opt for hard deadlines or submission periods, you may consider including a grace period. A grace period is a period of time between the final deadline for an assessment and when late penalties begin to be added.

  • You may consider a grace period of several hours to account for technological difficulties, last minute schedule changes, or other immediate factors.
  • If you use hard deadlines, you may also consider a grace period of a few days wherein late penalties aren’t applied, but other drawbacks such as less feedback, or later grading are applied. This technique still provides incentive for on-time submissions, but can reduce last minute emails and use of the academic consideration portal.

While every course will be scheduled differently and necessarily account for different types of content, assessments, and expectations, building in compassion and flexibility for both yourself and your students when and where possible will help promote a positive and inclusive classroom environment. Considering the context of deadlines and schedules allows you to give yourself and your students breathing space, helping to lower classroom anxiety and encouraging meaningful engagement over cramming.

Gardner, T. (2019). A Grace Period Update. MacMillan Learning Blog.

Gonzalez, J. (2019). A Few Ideas for Dealing with Late Work. Cult of Pedagogy Blog.

Gregory, K., & Morón-García, S. (2009). Assignment submission, student behaviour and experience. Engineering Education, 4(1), 16–28.

Khouri, M., Lipka, O., & Shecter-Lerner, M. (2022). University faculty perceptions about accommodations for students with learning disabilities. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 26(4), 365–377.

Nieberding, M., & Heckler, A. F. (2021). Patterns in assignment submission times: Procrastination, gender, grades, and grade components. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 17(1), 013106.

Womack, A.M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494-525.

Making Your Instructional Space Physically Accessible

While UDL largely focuses on course, syllabus, and assessment design to create access in the classroom, it is important not to forget that the physical environment your students learn in plays a major role in their access to course material. While student’s needs will vary, as will your capacity to meet them, some basic elements you can consider when thinking about access include:


  • Do your slides/course materials have adequate colour contrast (4.5:1)?
  • If you are writing on a whiteboard, are the pens available to you of suitable contrast (consider both colour and how much ink remains)?
  • If you are writing on a blackboard or whiteboard, is your writing large enough to be viewed from the back of the room?
  • Is the lighting adequate to participate in class activities or see the front of the room?
  • Do you know where outlets are in the room in case a student needs to use an electronic magnifier?
  • Are you facing your students so they can see you speaking?
  • If you are wearing a mask in your classroom, do you have a clear one available in the case of a student who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HOH)?
  • Can you make your course handouts available in a larger font if needed?


  • Are you projecting your voice?
  • Is there a microphone available for your use? Do you know how to use it?
  • Do you know how to connect to the speakers in the instructional space if you have video or audio components to your teaching?
  • Is the door to the instructional space closed to minimize auditory clutter?
  • If you are using any video or audio content, are closed captions available?
  • Are you facing your students so your voice isn’t muffled?
  • Are you verbalizing what is written on the board/slides for those who may be unable to read them from a distance?
  • Can you repeat the questions that students ask to ensure that they were heard?
  • If you have students who are d/Deaf or HOH, do you have seats close enough to you to allow for better access?


  • If you are in an active learning classroom, are the chairs positioned in a way that allows students with mobility aids the freedom to move around?
  • Can you schedule in breaks to your instructional time to give students the time to move around, stretch, stim, or attend to medical requirements as needed?
  • Do you know what the emergency muster points are and protocol is for wheelchair users in the building you’re teaching in?

While you may not be able to accommodate everyone’s needs in your classroom, and some students may have conflicting needs, keeping the above suggestions in mind can help improve access.

For information on how to create an accessible laboratory environment, please see the AccessibleCampus resource Accessible Science Laboratories.

O’Neill, J. L. (2021). Accessibility for All Abilities: How Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design Combat Inaccessibility and Ableism. Journal of Open Access to Law, 9(21), 1-15.

Sukhai, M. A., Mohler, C. E., Doyle, T., Carson, E., Nieder, C., Levy-Pinto, D., Duffett, E., & Smith, F. (2014). Creating an Accessible Science Laboratory Environment for Students with Disabilities. Council of Ontario Universities.

Checklist for Accessible Teaching. Stockholm University Centre for the Advancement of University Teaching. (2021, August 12). Retrieved July 20, 2022 from

Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training. Retrieved 13 May, 2022, from

Physical Disability. Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training. Retrieved 13 May, 2022, from

Vision Impairment and Blindness. Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training. Retrieved 13 May, 2022, from

Visual accessibility and the classroom. Perkins School for the Blind. (2021, July 23). Retrieved August 1, 2022, from

Additional Resources:

Accessibility Checklist for Alternative Assessments from Queen's University, Centre for Teaching and Learning

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

For more information on how Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS) supports and encourages the implementations Universal Design for Learning, please visit the Queen’s Student Accessibility Services Website.

Creative Commons Icon showing that you must share who the content is by and that it can't be used commerciallyThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Accessibility: Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen’s University