Universal Design

In this lesson, students learn about the principles of universal design, analyze examples of it, and develop their own product, communication or environment in accordance with its principles.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • define universal design
  • recognize the elements of universal design
  • create a product, communication or environment according to the principles of universal design
Essential Questions
  • What makes environments, communications and products most usable by the most people?
  • How is universal design similar to and different from designs for accessibility?


“The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

—Center for Universal Design

Universal design shifts the discourse about accessibility from the way most people think about it—as something that’s done to accommodate people with disabilities—to redefining design itself in a way that intends to accommodate everyone.


Additional Resources

Background on the Principles of Universal Design.



universal design [ yoo-nuh-vur-suhl dih-zahyn ]
(noun) an approach to creating products and environments that are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design

accessible [ ak-ses-uh-buhl ]
(adjective) having the legally required features and/or qualities that ensure entrance, participation and usability of places, programs, services and activities by individuals with a wide variety of disabilities


1. How easy would it be for someone to get around in a wheelchair? How easy would it be for someone with a hearing or visual disability to be a student or teacher at your school? Look around and find out. Team up with another student. Together, think about someone who uses a wheelchair or has a significant hearing loss or has a visual impairment. Take a trip around your classroom and then around your school. (Note: Set a time limit so that students remain focused.) As you take your tour, look for things that might be obstacles. For example, stairs, toilet stalls and light-switches might be obstacles for someone who uses a wheelchair. List these obstacles as you go along. Also look for things at your school that would make it easier for someone with a disability. Does your school have ramps, for example? What else would make it possible for someone who uses a wheelchair to function as easily as someone who walks?

2. When you get back to the classroom, share what you have learned. With your partner, create a T chart. On one side, list the obstacles you found. On the other, list the accommodations. This kind of activity is something that many designers have been doing for decades: observing obstacles to people with a variety of physical needs and thinking about how to accommodate those needs. But more recently, people have begun to think about how to design things so that just about anyone can use them. Look at your T chart. What if all buildings were designed so that wheelchairs could enter and move about freely? How different would it look than a building that has a ramp put in at one door, almost as an afterthought? Choose a few items from your list and answer the question: What would it look like if this need were taken into account when people designed products and buildings? That’s what you’re going to learn about in this lesson.

3. Review the definition on the handout Defining Universal Design. (Note: Randomly select a few students to explain each phrase to be sure everyone understands. You may want to use a method like deck of cards or a computer-generated list of names.) Then, working on your own, write a definition of universal design in your own words.

4. (Note: Set up seven workstations around the classroom. Number them from 1 to 7. At each workstation, write one of the seven principles of universal design on the chart paper, along with its short definition. There should be one station for each of the seven principles. Divide the class into seven groups, and number the groups 1 through 7. Give each group a different color marker, if possible. To help with classroom management, time students during this carousel activity.) Your classroom has been divided into seven separate workstations, each showcasing a different principle of universal design. With your group, go to the workstation assigned to you. First determine everyone’s role within the group, for example, choose a facilitator, recorder, speaker, etc. Then, discuss the principle. Be sure everyone in your group understands it. Your task now is to come up with an example of your group’s principle. Encourage everyone to share an idea. Write your ideas for your examples on the chart paper. If it’s helpful, draw a picture of your example of the principle “in action.” 

5. With your group, move to the next workstation (e.g., group 7 moves to workstation 1, etc.). Read what you find at that station—both the principle and the previous group’s idea. How does the example they came up with fit the principle it is intended to illustrate? For example, Principle #1 is Equitable Use. Let’s say students came up with the example of a building with artfully designed ramps leading to all entrances. With your group, figure out how such a design is an example of equitable use. Write it down on in the appropriate place on the sheet of paper. It might look like this:  The ramps avoid stigmatizing or segregating users because everyone uses the same entries. The ramps are appealing because they have been included in the original design of the building, not added on later.

6. With your group, move from station to station. At each station, read the principle, the example and the explanation of how the example illustrates the principle. If appropriate, expand on what the other groups contributed. When your group gets back to the station where you started, read what has been added to your example. Then, each group presents a short overview of their principle and what they discovered. By the time you finish the carousel activity, you should have a good sense of each of the seven principles.

7. So far, you’ve thought about the seven principles and examples of each. Actual designers probably incorporate more than one principle in products or environments they are creating. With a partner, look at the examples of universal design that are included with this lesson. Complete Images of Universal Design. Use your list of The Seven Principles of Universal Design to help you.

8. Now you’ve read about universal design and you’ve seen what it looks like in practice. Put your knowledge to work by creating your own communication, product or environment that is an example of universal design. Use Universal Design Project Guidelines to guide your efforts. You can complete this part of the activity working alone, with a partner or in a small group.


Reflecting On What You’ve Learned

Effective learners pause when they finish a project and reflect on what they’ve learned. Write a brief statement on the subject. You might focus on what surprised you most about universal design (and why it surprised you) or what you found most interesting about it and what made it interesting.

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