Universal Design for Research

An Introduction

Ann S. Williams, PhD, RN, CDE

Universal Design of Research (UDR) draws on concepts from three disciplines. Click on each of the three disciplines listed below to learn about the concepts drawn from that discipline used in UDR.

Disability Rehabilitation: Foundational Concepts

1. People who have disabilities also have many abilities.


  • People who cannot see, can hear; feel texture and vibration, feel temperature, smell; taste; think; etc…
  • People who cannot hear can see; feel texture, vibration, and temperature; smell; taste; think; etc…
  • People who cannot exercise by walking may be able to exercise by swimming, using a wheelchair, doing upper body or armchair exercises, etc.

2. People who have disabilities can use the many abilities they have to accomplish most of what they want and need to do.

Examples commonly experienced in public places in the US:

  • Closed captioning on television programs
  • Tactile floor numbers at each floor on an elevator and audible announcement of the floor
  • Fire alarms that flash brightly in accessible hotel rooms

Examples less commonly known:

  • Deaf people may turn to look when a door opens, because they notice the breeze, and can know a subway train is near from feeling the vibrations.
  • Blind people may use smell to tell when certain foods are done cooking, and, when outdoors during the day, can tell from the warmth of sunshine on one side of the face which direction they are headed.

3. Re-framing goals more broadly.


  • Right now, we do not have a safe way for blind people to drive. Re-framing the goal: for the person to arrive where he/she wants to be when he/she wants to be there. This re-frame allows for traveling alone with a white cane, using a dog guide, taking a bus or subway, taking a taxi, getting a ride from a friend, etc.

UD of Architecture and Consumer Products

Definition of UD: The design of products, services, and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Contrast with Average Person Design (APD) – design for the middle 90% of the population.

  • With APD, designs to serve people with disabilities are considered specialized niche markets, are often expensive, stigmatizing, and not widely available.

  • If the same design is used by both disabled and non-disabled people, it is less expensive, not stigmatizing, and widely available.


The 7 Principles of UD:

  • Equitable use.
  • Flexibility in use.
  • Simple and intuitive use.
  • Perceptible information.
  • Tolerance for error.
  • Low physical effort.
  • Size and space for approach and use.

For explanations and more detail about UD, visit the Center for Universal Design website.

A foundational concept of UD: Thoughtful design can eliminate barriers for people whose needs are not addressed by APD.

A Bonus! Unintended Benefits:

Good universal designs often make something more flexible, more comfortable, and easy to use for everyone. Examples.

  • Curb cuts
  • Good Grips™ kitchen tools
  • Recorded books
  • Television closed captioning

All of these were originally designed for disabled people. They are widely used by fully able people who find them flexible, comfortable and easy to use.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

1. With mandated mainstreaming of children with disabilities in classrooms, teachers have developed ways to apply UD principles to learning situations.

2. UDL provides a blueprint for creating flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that accommodate learner differences.

3. Unintended Benefits! The flexibility of a curriculum designed with UDL principles benefits everyone by allowing for multicultural learners, individual learning styles, and varying levels of preparation for learning.

4. Three Principles of UDL:

  • Provide multiple means of representation.
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression.
  • Provide multiple means of engagement.

For more information about what these principles mean, see:

Universal Design of Research:

Design of research processes, instruments, and interventions with enough flexibility to accommodate the needs of all potential participants, regardless of their level of abilities or disabilities.

Principles of UDR:

1. Plan multiple options for people to learn about and arrive at opportunities to participate in research.

  • Recruit in both visual and auditory media (fliers, radio, television announcements).
  • Recruit through agencies serving disabled people.
  • If your research requires face-to-face interactions, plan a location accessible to non-drivers

2. Provide multiple means to communicate the information in research instruments and interventions.

  • Formats and equipment for people with visual impairment: large print, recording, Braille, in-person or telephone interview, audio-enabled computers, use of magnifiers and bright lighting, etc.
  • Formats and equipment for people with hearing impairment: use of lip reading, "pocket talker" amplifier, American Sign Language translator, video recording with noise-canceling earphones, etc.
  • For multiple disabilities: questionnaires in audio-enabled touch-screen tablet computers

3. Provide multiple means of responding to research instruments and interventions.

  • All methods mentioned above can be used for responding to research instruments.
  • Narrative diaries can be kept as recordings.
  • Tactile markings can be placed on touch-screen computers for people with visual impairment.
  • Accessible equipment for self-management interventions: talking thermometer, scale, food scale, sphygmomanometer, blood glucose meter, etc.

UDR is a work in progress. We can work with you to find flexible adaptations that work for your study.

To arrange for a consultation, call:

Ann Williams, PhD, RN, CDE
Email: ann.s.williams@case.edu