Use of Universal Design in Special Education

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Universal design strives to meet the unique needs of many different types of students. This lesson will discuss the use of universal design in special education and will end with a brief quiz to see what you have learned.

What is Universal Design?

Alec is a third grade student with a physical disability that limits his use of his arms and legs. A disability is a physical or mental issue that impairs normal and regular functioning. Due to his impairments, Alec qualifies for special education under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA). This law mandates that special needs students are entitled to receive a free and appropriate education depending on their unique needs.

Students with disabilities may require accommodations, or special tools or devices designed to support the needs of disabled individuals. An example of an accommodation that might be useful for Alec would be a wheelchair. However, these accommodations do not always make facilities and curricula fully accessible to those with disabilities. For example, Alec is not able to use a swing on the playground, or he may be unable to manipulate the pieces of a puzzle in a classroom. These limitations prevent Alec from participating fully in the class.

Universal design seeks to eliminate issues like those that Alec is facing by creating spaces and materials that are accessible to everyone regardless of ability. It is a method of design that strives for equality in accessibility to all environments and materials. In other words, facilities and curriculum are deigned for accessibility from the start rather than trying to use accommodations later to make them accessible.

With the practice of universal design, the playground at Alec's school would have been constructed with playground equipment that is accessible to all. Furthermore, the supplies and curriculum in his classroom would also be usable by all students, disabled and non disabled alike.

Now that we understand what universal design is, let's take a closer look at its use in special education.

Universal Design in Special Education

As we stated above, IDEA grants disabled students the right to an education that meets their unique needs. This is commonly referred to as special education because it is planned around the unique needs of the student. Needless to say, it can be difficult to design a classroom and curriculum that meets the needs of 35 students with varying ability levels. That is why special education students are often separated from non disabled students. However, with the use of the following universal design principles, it is possible to create a classroom that is accessible to all!

  • Equal access

Environments and materials that are universally designed can be accessed by anyone, regardless of ability. This means that students of different physical and mental abilities can fully participate and succeed in a universally designed classroom. No one should feel left out if universal design is successfully employed. For example, ramps can be used in place of stairs to create environments with equal access and all areas such as restrooms should be accessible to all students.

This Sign Indicates That The Restroom Was Designed To Include Access For The Disabled
universal design

  • Adaptability

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account