by Sheryl Bergstahler, Ph. D.
by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.

I was thrilled to be invited to speak at the LDA conference in Anaheim February 19-22. What a good excuse to go to Disneyland!

I shared information regarding two centers that I founded and continue to direct at the University of Washington in Seattlethe Access Technology Center helps faculty, students, staff and visitors with disabilities gain access to technology and electronic resources and the DO-IT Center is an outreach program that, in various projects funded by external sources, helps individuals with disabilities world-wide achieve success in college and careers, using technology as an empowering tool. DO-IT stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology.


The topics of my presentation were:

  •       Access Approaches for People With Disabilities
  •       Differences in Legislation and Support for K-12 and Postsecondary Students
  •       How to Make Educational Products and Environments Welcoming and Accessible Through         Universal Design
  •       Benefits of UD to Students with Learning Disabilities
  •       Resources

Access approaches for individuals with disabilities have ranged from exclusion and charity to the accommodation model to the social model of disabilities and universal design (UD).  An “accommodation” adjusts a product or environment to provide access to a specific person; it is reactive and includes such things as note-takers and extra time on exams.  In contrast, the UD approach promotes “products & environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (The Center for Universal Design,  UD requires that the designer think about diversity, including individuals with disabilities, in the design of the product or environment, including those in educational settings.

UD can be applied to instruction, services, physical spaces, and technology. For example, a universally-designed video:

  •       addresses multiple audiences in the design;
  •       is filmed with captions in mind;
  •       has large, clear captions that are searchable;
  •       is designed so that key content is both spoken and visually presented; and
  •       makes available an audio-described version.

UD of instruction is a goal as well as a proactive process, can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefits to all students, promotes good teaching practices, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. Examples of UDI practices that benefit students with learning disabilities, as well as many other students, include:

  •       large, bold fonts on uncluttered overhead displays
  •       speaking aloud all visual content presented
  •       outlines & other scaffolding tools
  •       opportunities to practice procedure
  •       materials in accessible electronic formats
  •       regular feedback & corrective opportunities
  •       activities that allow extra time

The primary resources shared in this presentation were the book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice published by Harvard Education Press, the online Center for Universal Design in Education at, and the Universal Design in Higher Education community of practice discussion list that can be joined by anyone interested in engaging on this topic by sending an email request to

In conclusion, UDI is an attitude that values diversity, equity, and inclusion; a goal; a process; and practices that make learning products and environments welcoming, accessible, and usable for everyone, including those who have learning disabilities. Encouraging the application of UD to instruction shows promise for increasing the success of students with learning disabilities and, perhaps even reduce the need for accommodations. I encourage you to promote this approach with both K-12 and postsecondary instructors. 


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