Sarah Nilsson, JD, PhD, MAS
Sarah Nilsson, JD, PhD, MAS

Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone



PART 1 (where we are now – general overview of what UDL is, where it came from, and how it functions in higher education) 

  1. How universal design for learning got to higher education– a field that was originally focused on the use of assistive technology (AT) to help students with disabilities expanded exponentially as the technology in everyone’s pockets became advanced enough to support UDL on an anywhere, anytime basis.
  2. It’s the law – except when it isn’t– legal requirements with which UDL helps institutions to comply, and also shows how legal compliance (unless it is forced on you) is seldom the best place from which to start your campus UDL adoption program.


PART 2 (reframing UDL – the right time for adopting UDL is now. Social, technological, and resource circumstances are different today than they were just 15 years ago, and we share ways that you can talk to your colleagues and institutional leaders about why it is now possible to adopt UDL as an approach for broad, general benefits to faculty members, institutional staff, and the students they serve) 

  1. Meet the mobile learners– now that nearly everyone has an Internet-capable phone, we’ve turned into a society of information-browsing consumers.
  2. Engage digitallearners– technology, although not essential for inclusive design, really enhances our ability to create interactions that can take place at anytime, anywhere.
  3. Adopt the plus-one approach– by demystifying the neuroscience behind the concept of UDL in a simple, easy-to-remember and easy-to-implement mental model of plus-one thinking.
  4. Coach the coaches and theplayers– radical argument for reframing UDL. UDL is, by its very nature, a reflective and painstaking process, and the surest way to success is to train not just faculty members but the people who support faculty and student populations, as well, in UDL principles.


PART 3 (adopt UDL on your campus – why it’s effective, not just in an it’s-the-right-thing-to-do sort of way but also where institutional leaders want to see positive change: in student retention, persistence, and satisfaction)

  1. Expand one assignment– how to look at one assignment or one interaction with an eye toward applying UDL to offer participants more freedom, more choices, and to make things generally easier and smoother – for the institution, faculty, and staff, as well as for the students.
  2. Enhance one program: UDL across the curriculum– project-based elements that go into a successful UDL program for an entire department, including the roles that team members play, how to keep momentum going, and where to focus resources in order to reap the greatest benefits. 
  3. Extend to one modality: the onlineenvironment– examining the online and technology tools and interactions that support most learners’ face-to-face, blended, and online interactions with colleges and universities. 
  4. Embrace one mind-set: campus-wide UDL– adoption is at the institutional level, where UDL becomes just part of what we do and is embedded into the cultural practices of the institution itself.
  5. Engage! The UDL Life Cycle– strategic techniques for moving UDL out of the realm of projects (things that have a defined beginning and ending) and into the realm of operations, where UDL becomes baked into the everyday running of your college or university.





UDL: Universal Design for Learning

Formalized in 1990s

By neuroscientists at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Boston 

First adopted widely in the US K-12 education world

Recently gained attention in higher education 

Roots in UD in the built environment, an advocacy effort for the access rights of people with physical challenges

Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 – mandated access for physically handicapped persons to buildings created or modified with federal funds

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – mandated even broader access to the built environment

Approach to the creation of learning experiences and interactions that incorporates multiple means of:

  • Engaging with content and people
  • Representing information
  • Expressing skills and knowledge 

The end result is to make the physical world more accessible for everyone – not just for people with disabilities


Emotional Valence and Accommodations

Our emotional response to UDL gets inflected with the valence from our experiences making disability accommodations

Valence refers to our emotional coloring for “events, objects, and situations…”

They may possess positive or negative valence – they may possess intrinsic attractiveness or aversiveness 


By adopting UDL principles in our course design, we greatly reduce the need for specific accommodation requests 


Applying UDL can be expensive and resource intensive. It takes design-level thinking, often beyond our current scope of subject expertise. UDL is not perceived as being for everyone – just for people with disabilities.

Our students today aren’t like our students fifteen years ago.

Our faculty members aren’t like their counterparts from the past, either.

86% of college students in North America own smartphones.

Mobile technology has changed how they communicate, gather information, allocate time and attention, and potentially how they learn.

The ever-growing mobile landscape thus represents new opportunities for learners both inside and outside the classroom.

UDL reaches out to learners on mobile devices and gives them more time for studying.


We move the focus away from training only faculty members about UDL. We train the people who support them:

  • Information technology (IT) departments
  • Teaching-and-learning centers
  • Media services areas
  • Academic department staff
  • Help desk


UDL training should focus on the people who actually put together the interactions for learners – not only to designing courses but also to designing the interactions that students have with our application processes, registrar’s offices, tutoring services, and other touchpoints common to the higher education experience. We can apply UDL principles to make it easier for everyone to engage with them. Implementing UDL principles across an institution requires leadership support and resources. This approach – training those who actually do the development work on materials and interactions on which UDL touches – results in greater levels of adoption of UDL across the institution.


STAR: Supporting Transition, Access, and Retention


Goal of UDL: to reduce barriers to learning for everyone

While we should always keep learners with disabilities in mind, we serve the broadest audience by situating UDL as a way to reach mobile learners through anytime, anywhere interactions, and we should train our support staff in UDL so faculty members who want to innovate are automatically presented with UDL as simply being the way things are done at our institutions.




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Sarah Nilsson, JD, PhD, MAS


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Legal disclaimer 

The information on this website is for educational purposes only and DOES NOT constitute legal advice. While the author of this website is an attorney, she is not your attorney, nor are you her client, until you enter into a written agreement with Nilsson Law, PLLC to provide legal services.



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