Centre for Teaching and Learning

Centre for Teaching and Learning
Centre for Teaching and Learning

Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning

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.

Universal Design for Learning in Theory

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching and learning, inspired by Universal Design, 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.

To familiarize yourself more deeply with the theory of UDL, check out one of these three resources:

Universal Design for Learning in Practice

Accessibility and aspiring to barrier-free learning is the responsibility of every instructor. You may feel overwhelmed by the learning curve or by the challenges of managing specific needs and requests, but taking the time to learn inclusive, equitable, and accessible teaching practices can benefit all learners, not just those with disabilities. Each instructor will find their own solutions that will work for them and their learners.

The rapid shift to remote learning in 2020 presents both challenges and opportunities. One of the great opportunities is that instructors are more strongly motivated to adopt accessible teaching practices. Using onQ or your faculty’s LMS regularly and effectively, making course content materials available online and in multiple formats, and allowing students to use technology to learn and access course materials are important starting points that now have the potential to become routine, if they weren’t already.

UDL will look different depending on the students, instructor, and course, so it’s hard to provide practical examples of how to do it. Below are three scenarios with possible solutions; these are meant to spark additional ideas from you.

Scenario 1: Instructor Presence

You are teaching a remote learning course, and check your students’ login statistics and discussion board posting statistics once a week. It’s week three of the course, and you notice that the majority of students don’t check the discussion board to read other posts after they post their own response, and several haven’t even logged in to the course site at all.

Possible solutions (both immediate and proactive):

  • build your own presence with a weekly update video (preferably captioned and with a posted transcript) and/or regular course announcements
  • send regular check-in emails to students who aren’t logging in. You might simply ask “How are you doing?” or mention the behaviour you see (“I notice…”)
  • regularly post in the discussion board yourself so that students know you’re monitoring it (build it in to your existing routine)
  • decide whether it’s important that students read other posts in the discussion board. If so, provide guidelines on the number of required responses each week, or ask students to begin each week’s post with a response to posts from the previous week
  • make sure students are clear about expectations around how often they’re supposed to check the course site and whether they’re supposed to read and respond to others’ posts
Scenario 2: Learning Environment Challenges

A student contacts you by email, explaining that they’re struggling to find things in your course website in onQ. They tell you that they’re learning from home, where they have a large family with several younger siblings who they often have to care for while their parents work, and they don’t have a dedicated quiet study space when they do have a chance to get to their own work.

Possible immediate solutions:

  • suggest that the student may wish to contact Queen’s Student Accessibility Services if they need formal accommodations (but don’t ask or assume the student needs these supports)
  • if the student is in the Faculty of Arts & Science, suggest that they may wish to make a request for academic consideration
  • recommend Student Academic Success Services (SASS) for resources around learning strategies generally and strategies for remote learning specifically
  • be kind in directing them to any previously-provided information about how to navigate the course. You don’t know the full story of why they are finding it difficult, and often what’s intuitive to you in terms of organization is not for someone else.

Possible proactive solutions:

  • clearly lay out the expected workload for each week, and use a standard communication method for doing this (e.g. course announcement on Monday and Friday; short video and posted document every Tuesday)
  • introduce the course with a welcome video where you share your screen to show students where to find things in the course
  • use a standardized onQ course template if possible
  • offer options for assignment type:
    • avoid or provide alternatives to a timed and scheduled quiz or exam. Students in challenging learning environments or with learning disabilities might struggle to complete timed tasks.
    • give a few formatting options to allow students to demonstrate their learning in a way that works best for them. For instance, if you want to ensure that students can summarize or critique selected texts, an essay might be one option, but an infographic or podcast might also demonstrate that skill.
  • establish collaborative note-taking groups for content where students are expected to take notes on their own (both Queen’s Student Accessibility Services and Student Academic Success Services report that note-taking can be a challenging skill for students)
Scenario 3: Timed Tests and Exams

Your course is designed to have two 60-minute tests weighted at 25% each, and a two-hour final exam, worth 50% of the grade and scheduled during the final exam period. These tests are typically proctored and so you plan to use a remote proctoring service supported by your department.

Possible proactive solutions:

These options are listed first as many campus units, including the CTL, strongly discourage the widespread use of remote-proctored timed tests and exams as a form of assessment.

  • offer a take-home exam or other final assignment that isn’t timed. This gets rid of the need to accommodate for time and manage student accommodations, and also works well with UDL guidelines around flexibility of assignment type and subject, which typically lead to greater student engagement
  • add other assignments to the course to reduce the grade weighting on timed tests/exams. This reduces anxiety and pressure, which also helps reduce academic integrity violations.

Possible immediate solutions:

  • provide students with a practice exam
  • be explicit about the exam format, especially if students will not be able to view the full exam at once or go back to change their answers
  • clearly communicate what is/isn’t allowed in terms of use of notes, consultation with other students, etc. so that academic integrity concerns are minimized. One of the most frequent reasons students cheat is that they don’t know what constitutes cheating.
  • be explicit about where students will go for tech support if they have problems during the exam, and confirm that support is available. Remember that tech support includes both technical problems and instructional decisions like whether a student should get additional time because of technical difficulties, so you or another member of the teaching team may need to be available throughout the exam period.
  • talk openly with students about anxieties related to remote proctoring software: how to minimize the feeling of being watched, how even in-person exams that are proctored involve people watching other people
  • instructors will need to manage extra time accommodations themselves, with solutions including:
    • manually add extra time in onQ for those students who are permitted to receive it
    • schedule and write different exams – one for students with no extra time, one for students with time-and-a-half, one for students with double time
    • give all students double time and be explicit to students that the exam is designed to be half that length, that students who don’t need the extra time shouldn’t feel they need to use it, and that this does still comply with university/provincial laws and guidelines around accommodation
  • if you have students in multiple time zones, have the exam available for a longer time window, but once a student starts the exam they have only the correct amount of time to do it


The Queen’s Accessibility Hub is the central resource for accessibility, including information for educators, as well as numerous ‘how-to’ guides for making your communications with students more accessible, whether as documents, slide presentations, videos, emails, or other formats.

This slide deck: 4 Accessibility Tips for PowerPoint Presentations (PDF, 2.7MB) describes four simple changes you can make 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


Generally, the CTL encourages instructors to adopt guidelines of Universal Design for Learning in order to develop courses that are accessible to all learners. As such, “accessibility over accommodation” might be a mantra to consider. That said, since universal design is always somewhat aspirational, there will be times when you need to understand and manage individual student accommodations. Queen’s Student Accessibility Services has developed resources for instructors, and the CTL also shares these general thoughts:

  • treat accommodations letters as the start of a conversation with a student about their learning needs and the requirements of the course
  • never request information from a student about the disability itself; talk instead about what they need to learn
  • try for flexibility as much as is reasonable and possible

Additional Resources

Gierdowski, Dana C., and Joseph D. Galanek. ECAR Study of the Technology Needs of Students with Disabilities, 2020. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, May 2020.

UID Quick-Start Implementation Checklist from Guelph University

“Accessible Teaching in Every Context” CTL webinar June 29, 2020 (recording and slides)