Universal Design

By definition, Universal Design (UD) is a set of established guidelines to design products and environments to be “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Connell et al., 1997). When applied to a learning environment, this concept becomes a global pedagogical approach that ensures students with various abilities and learning styles are supported.

The seven principles of UD are valuable in structuring course materials for all students, and can provide ways of asking questions about the ways that course material, delivery, and evaluation are designed and how they can be improved to be accessible to as many students as possible. The principles of UD can also be extremely useful when considering the accessibility of physical environments in which particular physical learning activities take place, such as wet labs, computer labs, or other environments where students are engaged in practical experimentation. Embracing the practice of UD or inclusive teaching practices allows “students with disabilities [to] have increased access to course participation with fewer special accommodations” (Shaw, 2011, p.29) while enhancing the quality and safety of the laboratory experience for all students.

Instruction is Accessible and Fair:

Many issues of equity in a lab environment may be structural, and will therefore be out of a TA’s control: the placement of equipment, availability of accessible equipment for persons with mobility devices, etc. are the responsibility of the university and AS in conjunction with the department and the course instructor to arrange. However, as a TA, there are questions you can ask yourself about the way that you have organized the lab/practical, how you deliver information and expectations to your students, and what you ask of them while they are in the lab/practical learning environment. Are there physical barriers in the learning environment that make doing the work more difficult for certain students? What is the reason for the difficulty, and are there simple workarounds? Are there physical barriers in the learning environment that make doing the required work more dangerous for certain students? It is important to design instructional materials in ways that can be be useful for and accessible to people with diverse abilities. Students are provided equal opportunities to make use of instruction in the lab setting. Since there may be structural challenges in the lab, you may need to provide new and engaging ways for students to access the content as well as demonstrate their aptitude and skills.

As a TA, you may also be able to request access to specific hardware and software which enhance the learning experience for your students.

  • On your request, the institution might be able provide Braille texts, equipment, and labels; equipment for enlarging microscopic images, including binoculars and magnifiers; large print calculators; text-to-speech software; captioning for video presentations; or plastic replacements for glassware.

Instruction is Flexible:

Instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities. This principle is built on the understanding that people learn best when content is presented multi-modally, so that they have opportunity to encounter material in different forms and engage with it through various media. Presenting all materials through several different means will ensure that more students have the opportunity to learn from and engage with content. When possible, provide students with a choice of methods to access materials.

  • When providing written material, provide access to the material in both a hard copy and a digital copy. This will allow students to decide how they can best engage with the material, and will give students who are reliant on screen-readers and other accessibility software the chance to access the material using these supports.
  • When labelling materials, or providing written instructions or illustrations, use large print and avoid text and/or background colours that render content inaccessible to people with colour blindness.
  • When possible, allow student to participate and engage with peers and/or content in a variety of different ways.

Instruction is straightforward and consistent:

Instruction is designed in a straightforward, and predictable manner. This involves removing unnecessary complexities in content and instruction.

  • Consider using a routine pattern for the layout of your lab pre-talk so that all students know what to expect when entering the lab and can anticipate when they will be given instructions, when they will have an opportunity to ask questions, etc.
  • Let students know when you will be distributing material prior to the lab/practical meeting, so that they can anticipate starting to prepare; this is good practice for all students, but it is essential for students who meet with a tutor or learning strategist to prepare for class, or for students who access course documents and notes using software or tools that they may have to book in advance.

Instruction is Clear, Explicit and Easy to Perceive:

Instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student: this includes information that is given aloud and that is given through documents or other media. Acknowledge that labs and practicals can be somewhat chaotic environments, and try to minimize the amount of outside distraction for all students. Anticipate that some students might be distracted by a lot of noise and if you can, close the door to the lab to minimize outside noise: this will be of benefit to all students, but will be especially beneficial to those with sensory disabilities (such as those who are hard of hearing or those who are visually impaired and rely heavily on auditory instructions) as well as those with sensory processing disorders (such as students with ADD/ADHD and ASD).

  • When developing resources for your students, including handouts, lab notes, study questions, etc., make sure that these documents comply with the formatting requirements of Accessible Documents.
  • If presenting information using PowerPoint, provide students with your slides in advance: this will give students with visual or hearing difficulties an opportunity to make whatever alterations they need to these documents.
  • When giving instructions and safety tips, make sure that you speak slowly and loudly so that all students can hear you. Face the group while you are speaking: this is good practice when speaking to students, but is essential for students who may be reading lips to supplement their hearing. It is also a good idea to repeat important information several times, especially if you can repeat it using different ways of articulating the concept: like the principle of multi-modal learning, talking to students about material from several different angles benefits all students; and using alternative and varied ways of articulating an expression, concept, or symbol also helps deal with the challenges that deaf and hard of hearing students face in the comprehension of word problems.
  • If questions are asked by students, repeat the question to ensure that all students had an opportunity to hear it. If you are performing a demonstration, describe what you are doing in words, and highlight important steps as you go.

The Learning Environment is Supportive:

Students who have recognized accessibility requirements will have support from AS, and hopefully will be clear with you about what they require; however, establishing a supportive and inclusive learning environment will help these students to feel comfortable speaking to you about their needs. Most importantly, the way that you treat and engage with students with disabilities will model to other students expected behaviours: establish that every member of the class is to be treated with respect, and other students will follow that lead!

  • Include an accessibility statement in your lab/practical syllabus, that articulates the university’s commitment to accessibility in learning, but that also highlights your commitment to support your students’ learning needs.
  • Check in with students regularly to ensure that the learning environment if welcoming and encouraging for all your students.

Instruction Minimizes or Eliminates Unnecessary Physical Effort:

Instruction is designed to minimize non-essential physical effort to allow maximum attention to learning. As a TA, this principle might involve you asking yourself what aspects of the lesson plan may be unnecessary, even though they are “the way things have always been done”.

  • Ensure that students can sit down during your pre-lab lecture as standing may be taxing for some students, and standing for a period of time before the lab work even begins might put these students at a disadvantage once they begin.
  • Students who have sensory impairment may need to be close to you when you speak, or may need to be close to demonstrations in order to be able to see clearly: ensure that there are appropriate seats saved for these students.

Similar to the principle, above, of ensuring that information is clear and easy to perceive, acknowledge that the bustle of the lab environment might be very demanding for some students.

  • If you know that you have a student with a sensory disability that would benefit from being closer to you when you speak, further from outside distractions, arrange with the student that a appropriate seat will be saved for them to minimize the effort they have to make to hear or see you.

The Learning space is appropriately designed for students:

Instruction is designed to be possible regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs. In labs and practicals, this principle is primarily aimed at structural issues, such as accessible lab furniture and equipment, which will be outside of the scope of things a TA can control or change. Mobility and space issues in labs and practicals will need to be addressed by the university, in conjunction with AS, the department and the CI. However, there are space and use issues that can be addressed on a day-by-day basis by TAs.

  • When you arrive in your lab, make sure that there are no obvious and unnecessary obstructions to movement. Move garbage/recycling bins out of the path of students’ movement around the lab.
  • If you have students who use mobility devices, make sure that there is enough room for them to maneuver at their lab bench and move furniture or unnecessary, moveable equipment from their workspace.
  • Make sure that there are no tripping hazards for students with vision difficulties; include a policy in your lab syllabus that bags and other extraneous materials must be left outside the lab to ensure that students don’t leave stuff on the floor that could be tripping hazards.

Additionally, if given the opportunity to contribute to lab redesign plans, share your knowledge about accessibility needs in the lab from the perspective of a teaching assistant and strongly encourage consultation from students with disabilities in your program about design plans for teaching and research spaces.


Universal Instructional Design (UID) or Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “the philosophical foundation for inclusive teaching” (Moon, Utschig, Todd, and Bozzorg, 2011, p. 332). The obstacles that students with disabilities encounter are often the same obstacles faced by students with different learning styles and those whose native language is not English (Sukhai and Mohler, 2016). Therefore, although the tips provided above are aimed to aid learners with disabilities, their implementation can enhance learning opportunities for everyone within a diverse student body. Through inclusive and accessible teaching practices, we can provide all our students with the support they need, thereby improving the quality of the classroom experience for ourselves and our students.