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UDE Philosophy and Terminology


We summarize our philosophy of universal design with a simple phrase:

Design Including People with Disabilities
Better Design for Everyone.

Universal design helps out people with visible and significant disabilities. Universal design also helps out people with invisible disabilities, temporary disabilities and people with mild impairments who might simply be at lesser, but some risk of failure. Like no other intervention though, UD allows people without impairments to take advantage of improved efficiency and effectiveness in tasks.


  • People with good 20/20 vision often encounter dark rooms.
  • People with good hearing must perform tasks where normal voice or sound does not carry like in a noisy place.
  • People with no hand impairment must operate devices when their hands are busy because they are carrying a large item like a box.
  • The best students may be busy taking notes so that they miss the visual information on a lecture slide that swishes by, not unlike how a blind student experiences the same slide.


We must provide disability support services to accommodate individuals. We also must provide universal design services to accommodate everyone.


The terminology surrounding universal design, accessibility, and many related terms and concepts have evolved into substantial linguistic discussions since the ADA law was passed. The ACCESS-ed Project has witnessed confusion emerging around these concepts. Consequently, this brief discussion around the terminology of universal design and accessibility proposes to help organize our thinking, at least for the ACCESS-ed Project and its applications.

  • List of UD and Accessibility Terms
  • Assistive Technology Design
  • Mass Market Design
  • Usable Design
  • Universal Design of Buildings
  • Universal Design (UD)
  • Universal Design in Education (UDE)
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • Universal Design in Instruction (UDI)
  • Universal Instructional Design (UID)
  • Inclusive Design
  • Accessible Design
  • Design for All
  • Life Span Design
  • Transgenerational Design
  • Good Human Factors Engineering Design
  • Good Interface Design
  • Good Human-Machine Design
  • User Friendly Design
  • Accessibility,
  • Usability
  • Universal Access (Universal Accessibility)
  • Ergonomic Design
  • Accessible Medical Instrumentation

A part of the process to choose one term for our use in the ACCESS-ed Project we organized the items into categories. This smattering of term can be simplified in two ways.

First, a number of the terms are similar in that they describe UD as implemented to different target applications. For example, we might talk about universal design in the "built environment", universal design in "education" or universal design in "medical instrumentation". Conceptually, they are similar although one addresses architecture, one instruction and the third educational settings.

Second, an important distinguishing feature among these terms is whether the term represents an intervention or whether it represents an outcome. For example, "accessibility" is not intervention or methodology. It represents an outcome. Accessibility is what occurs when particular types of interventions or design pre-interventions occur. On the other hand, conceptually, the term "universal design" is not an outcome, but a process. Universally designing a product is how a product is optimally planned and developed. It is not an outcome of a design.

One might debate the point and say either type of term could be used interchangeably with the other. Perhaps we could list examples where these concepts are synonymous. However, we want to reduce confusion.

Consequently, we propose the intentional use of the term "universal design" as a verb that describes a process for creating products and environments that intentionally work optimally for everyone. Likewise, we propose that our intentional use of terms like "accessibility" and its derivatives be applied to describe an outcome. Of course this can be confounded by conjugations like "universally designed" or "accessible design", but it seems helpful to delineate that we have two important concepts. One is a process and the second is the outcome. Obviously we need both, but should be clear when we mean which.

While, we do not need to be linguist as we use these terms, it is helpful to have incorporated a basic understanding of these terms as we apply them.

So, which term should we use to describe the scope of the ACCESS-ed Project?
We chose UDE. See the following section on Why UDE not UDL? to read why.

The A3 Conceptual Framework: Advocacy, Accommodation and Accessibility and its Caveat

In the About ACCESS-ed section of the ACCESS-ed website we briefly describe the A3 model. It was conceptualized a number of years ago. Since then, the universal design and accessibility terminology has moved prominently forward. This A3 Model is a foundational conceptualization of UDE institutional change on campuses. However, in the context of terminology, we need to update the specific terms. While we do not want to change the A, the A or the A, in the A3 Model because it would change the A3 acronym name, conceptually, the A3 terms reveal a dissonance in light of the previous discussion around the differences between universal design and accessibility. So we write a brief, ‘Caveat of the A3 Model.’

The sequence of 1) Advocacy, 2) Accommodation, and 3) Accessibility provides a nice basis for the ‘A3 Model’ and we use this in our basic training about UDE. However, according to the above discussion, ‘Advocacy’ and ‘Accommodation’ are intervention approaches. ‘Accessibility’ , on the other hand, is a goal, an outcome, not an intervention. A more pure A3 model might read Advocacy, Accommodation and Universal Design. However, AAUD does not have the same catchy ring to it as A3 and rhymes too much with DUD!

Why UDE and not UDL?

Students involved in postsecondary education must successfully perform hundreds of different types of tasks during a study term. These tasks range from successfully registering for courses, paying for courses, waking before morning classes, finding sufficient nutrition to be mentally engaged during classes, getting to classes, physically managing course books, using computers, accessing materials, completing assignments, taking tests etc. Successfully navigating through a day, much less a term, of educational activities requires access to physical spaces and buildings, information systems, as well as courses, services and curriculum.

While successful learning of knowledge and skills is the clear goal, successful management of the entire educational experience is the demand. Optimal universal design in postsecondary education revolves around creating better designs for all areas of activity in which a student participates. Difficulty in accessing any one of these hundreds of activities can throw a students education in jeopardy.

Universal Design in Learning might be the best description of interventions specific to course and curriculum. The overall need for universal design in postsecondary education is broader than direct learning activities, however. Thus, a broader term was preferred. We chose Universal Design in Education (UDE) as the most representative terms to describe the scope of UD addressed by the ACCESS-ed Project.

Universal design requires thinking about all users.

Valerie Fletcher
Executive Director of Adaptive Environments.