CTL Blog

Digital Accessibility's Intersection with Universal Design for Learning

June 03, 2022 | 4 Minute Read

This guest post is by Celine Greene, Senior Instructional Technologist in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Designing educational materials and activities to reach all learners is an inclusive best practice, aligning with the University's Roadmap on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to foster an environment that welcomes, celebrates, and supports diverse people and ideas. One step faculty and staff are expected to take in this effort is to make their course content and communications accessible. At the same time, courses are being designed and facilitated to adhere to the universal design for learning (UDL) framework so that every student might succeed. While accessibility and UDL complement each other, they are not synonymous.

Defining Accessibility and UDL

Simply put, accessibility – or, more specifically, digital accessibility – is the characteristic and practice of creating electronic communications and products that can be perceived, navigated, and understood by everyone. UDL is the practice of designing and facilitating education that fosters everyone to succeed as an expert learner.

Digital accessibility is the absence of unintended barriers in a file, program, or application’s complete design. Something that is digitally accessible can be accessed, used, and comprehended by people regardless of their abilities. Additionally, it remains accessible across technologies – including assistive technologies, computing platforms, and programs. The most common accessibility measures are aligned with the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) success criteria. Accessibility comes from implementing specific techniques that meet these criteria. While the design of digitally accessible items considers eliminating potential obstacles for a subset of the population, digital accessibility benefits everyone.

UDL is a scientifically–based educational framework that strives to allow everyone to become an expert learner by sparking three neural networks shown to be active when learning: the affective, recognition, and strategic networks. To stimulate those areas, UDL guides curriculum and activities to provide learners with multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. This includes options for students to access, build, and internalize what is being taught. The UDL framework is built to be flexible enough to meet the needs of every learner on any day – no matter the impact of individual circumstances, emotions, nor abilities.

The Necessity of Embracing Both Accessibility and UDL

UDL and accessibility are both a part of equity. When the learning is equitable, the potential barriers are removed and the flexibility is built in. By thinking ahead about everyone and not just “the other” nor a “special population” nor the “documented accommodation” or “special circumstance”, we are inclusive.

Resources can be accessible without providing “multiple means” or options, as prescribed by UDL. Activities can be universally designed without being accessible. To be truly inclusive and reach all learners, education should strive for both: practice accessibility and embrace UDL.

Accessible without Embracing UDL

One example of practicing accessibility without embracing UDL includes a common course artifact: the accessible lecture video. This video will have appropriate color contrast ratios, acronyms spelled out the first time they’re used, annotations and other visuals being described in the narration, and closed captioning. On its own, just having that accessible video – even with a transcript – does not satisfy the UDL guideline to provide options for perception, including offering alternatives to visual and auditory information. However, having these other options offers learners flexibility and choice receiving and understanding the lecture’s content.

Embracing UDL Without Being Accessible

Counter to that, there may be a learning module that embraces UDL in providing students multiple means of representation and options for perception – such as an essay, interactive simulation, and video that present similar content aiming to reach the same learning objective – but each of those options might not be accessible to every student. The essay’s PDF might not have properly nested headings, a logical reading order, nor alternative text for its embedded images. The interactive simulation might not be navigable by someone who cannot use a computer mouse. The video might not have an interactive transcript or closed captioning. These potential points of failure in the universally designed module create barriers; inaccessible resources are not an option for some students. Using media that fails to align with WCAG success criteria also fails the students, despite the care that that has gone into the rest of the instruction’s design.

The Intersection’s Strength

Designing and facilitating a course built within the UDL framework that meets digital accessibility guidelines allows a better experience for all students. It also avoids faculty having to retrofit or rework course materials and learning activities. In making content accessible, we remove barriers and create true opportunities for choice – or flexibility – in our resources for all learners. THIS is the greatest strength in the intersection of UDL and accessibility.