Keeping Up With... Universal Design for Learning

Keeping Up With Universal Design for Learning header with black half moons and blue lines

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Robin Brown, Zach Welhouse, and Amy Wolfe.

Robin Brown is the Head of Public Services at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, email:

Zach Welhouse is the Online Learning Librarian at Oregon State University, email:

Amy Wolfe is the Accessibility Librarian at the Office of Library Service,  CUNY Central and a Open Educational Resources Developer at Brooklyn College. CUNY,  email:


In 2018 Norman Youngblood, co-director of Auburn University's Laboratory for Usability, Communication, Interaction & Accessibility spoke to the heart of universal design: "Accessibility cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be part of the creative process."

The Invisible Disability Project defines universal design as "An approach to design that is meant to produce buildings, products, and environments that are accessible to virtually everyone, without the need for adaptation or specialized design, regardless of ability or age."

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational movement focused on changing our instructional practices to reach the maximum number of students regardless of ability, disability, age, gender, or cultural and linguistic background. Applying UDL to library instruction means designing instruction that accounts for everyone's abilities and differences. Library instruction needs to be presented and accessed in several formats, to be adjustable to the various styles of students, and to limit barriers for all learners. Designing for accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities.

Many librarians view universal design as a moral responsibility. Library service to the disabled has been a part of our profession since the late 19th century (Sheidlower, 2017). The modern ACRL reaffirms this responsibility:

"ACRL is dedicated to creating diverse and inclusive communities in the Association and in academic and research libraries. This core commitment permeates the work of the Association" ("ACRL Equity, Diversity and Inclusion").

If we persist in solving accessibility on a case by case basis, we miss invisible disabilities, are caught playing eternal catch-up, and require people to self -identify, opening up possibilities of stigma.

In a 2010 fact sheet, Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) described UDL principles that call for varied and flexible ways to

  • "Present or access information, concepts, and ideas (the "what" of learning),
  • Plan and execute learning tasks (the "how" of learning), and
  • Get engaged--and stay engaged--in learning (the "why" of learning)"

What Can Librarians Do to Incorporate UDL into Their Library Instruction?

Incorporating UDL means committing to making sure library instruction is available to all students. Every library instruction can benefit from incorporating aspects of UDL. It's an ongoing process, and doing something is better than doing nothing.

Easy Tasks Librarians Can Do

  • Design library instruction sessions which present information in various formats such as text, images, video, and audio.
  • Use LibGuides or other website creation tools to provide multiple means of representation.
  • Run your LibGuide or site through the WAVE accessibility checker.   
  • Design library instruction sessions with various types of built-in, hands-on work.
  • Make sure several stations in the instruction room have assistive technology (AT) installed, so students can use screen reader software, screen magnification, and zoom text.
  • Use class time to check in with each student and make sure nobody is lost.
  • Be conscious of using library jargon when teaching. Always check for understanding.  

Teaching for Credit

  • Design courses with UDL from the start. Beginning with accessibility and UDL in mind makes it easier to sustain a workflow. Retrofitting inaccessible material is more difficult than starting from a clean slate.
  • Grade assignments for  accessibility. Can the students create a UDL document that addresses different audiences? The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education encourages information literacy learners to "identify barriers to entering scholarly conversation" and "see themselves as contributors to the information marketplace rather than just consumers of it."

Campus Outreach

  • Present UDL as a style guide issue. Create documentation showing how to implement UDL.
  • Check your institution's vision and mission statements for words like "equity", "access," and "everyone".  
  • Academics want to make their citations correct to appeal to other scholars. Why not make the document accessible as well?
  • Demonstrate the difference between how screen readers respond to properly, accessibly formatted materials versus improperly formatted materials; demonstrate what an accessible formatted document looks like in Word.

A Little More Work

  • Caption all library videos.
  • Hire a user of assistive technology to evaluate your website for accessibility issues.

Here are some good links and information on captioning:

Jessica Kellgren-Fozard is a great teacher and champion of captioning. These three videos cover the importance of captions, how to caption, and captioning best practices.

Infrastructure Issues

  • Does your classroom have a workstation with JAWS running, along with headphones?
  • Does your classroom have workstations that can be used by a student in a wheelchair?
  • How does your institution handle procurement? Does IT and the library require VPATs from tech and database vendors?
  • Doing all of this yourself is unlikely. How can the labor be shared?
  • Does the college provide institutional captioning services? If not, how can you promote their creation to administration?
  • Does your institution have a clear, specific Digital Accessibility Policy? If not, grants may be available.


The journey toward Universal Design is always a work in progress. We hope to encourage readers to consider what is possible, at this present time, and then to make plans for future goals. It's a mindset. It's something to be reached for over time.  

Recommended Reading

For accessibility: For Items with a link, the title text is the active link while the URLs are not active.  When screen reader users access this document and pull up a list of links to be read aloud they will hear the full titles and not the URLs.

Association of Specialized Government and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASGCLA). 2019. "Resources".


Beyene, Wondwossen M. "Resource Discovery and Universal Access: Understanding Enablers and Barriers from the User Perspective." Studies in health technology and informatics 229 (2016): 556-66.


Guevara, Senovia. "Starting the Conversation: The Disabled Library Patron." Information Outlook (Online) 22, no. 6 (2018): 6-15.

Johnson, Abbie. 2017. "Tech Talk: Captions as Universal Design."


Kavanagh Webb, K., and Hoover, Jeanne. 2015. "Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the Academic Library: A Methodology for Mapping Multiple Means of Representation in Library Tutorials." College & Research Libraries


Darby, Alexa. n.d. "NEA's Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom.


Shaw, S. F., Scott, S.S., & McGuire, J. M. 2001. Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities. Arlington, VA. ERIC EDE618.


Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). 2018. "Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, version 2.2.



For accessibility: For items with a link, the title text is the active link while the URLs are not active.  When screen reader users access this document and pull up a list of links to be read aloud they will hear the full titles and not the URLs.

American  Library Association. 2006. "ACRL Equity, Diversity and Inclusion."


Association of College & Research Libraries. (2015) "Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education."


IDP. n.d. "Invisible Disability Project."


Kellgren-Fozard, Jessica. 2018.  "How Using Captions Can Get You 80% More Views! // Why Captions Are Useful." Filmed September 25, 2018. Video, 11:08.


Kellgren-Fozard, Jessica. 2018. "How to Caption Your Videos on YouTube." Filmed September 26, 2018. Video, 6:42.


Kellgren-Fozard, Jessica. 2018. "Don't do this! // How to do captions right!" Filmed September 28, 2018. Video, 15:17.

Sheidlower, Scott, "Accommodating the Disabled in Library One-Shots at York College/CUNY." Codex, the Journal of the Louisiana Chapter of the ACRL, 4, no. 3 (2017), 64-82.


Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL). 2010. "TEAL Center Fact Sheet No. 2: Universal Design for Learning."


WEB Aim, Utah State University. n.d. "WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool."


Wolfe, Amy. 2020. "Accessibility Across the Curriculum: An OER Website on Accessibility" MA Capstone, CUNY Graduate Center.


Youngblood, Norman E., Lakshmi N. Tirumala, and Robert Anthony Galvez. "Accessible Media: The Need to Prepare Students for Creating Accessible Content." Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 73, no. 3 (2018): 334--45.