The concept of Universal Design originated in the field of architecture and developed in response to the need for people with disabilities to have access to buildings. For example, stairs are not easily navigated by people that use assistive technology such as wheelchairs. So, buildings were retrofitted with ramps and elevators but this was not a cost-effective solution to the access problem. Because of the prohibitive cost and the fact that such modifications were a benefit to the general public (e.g. ramps provide easier access for strollers and elevators make it easier to carry bulky or heavy items) architects began designing structures that provided access to everyone. This movement in the field of architecture became known as “Universal Design”.
Later, the Universal Design concept was applied to education. Resources such as printed materials, are not accessible to all learners for a variety of reasons. Educators came to the realization that the varied needs and learning styles of students should not be met with a “one size fits all” approach. In order to provide access for all types of learners, learning materials and resources should be designed with their needs in mind. As the capabilities of technology has developed over the years, and the field of instructional technology has grown, the ways in which materials and resources are presented to learners has become quite sophisticated.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to address the varied needs, learning styles, and of preferences of students so flexibility is at the core of UDL. A tenet of UDL is that curricula should include alternatives in order to provide relevant learning opportunities for a diverse population of learners. Therefore, “universal” does not suggest a “one size fits all” approach. “Universal” refers to meeting the needs of students with different learning styles, abilities, disabilities, and cultural backgrounds. This diversity requires that the design of learning activities, materials and resources be flexible in order to be adaptable for different learners and different instructional media.