Is Universal Design for Learning Even Possible?

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What’s accessible to one may be inaccessible to another. This post explores the question, is Universal Design for Learning even possible?

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A few months ago, in a peer mentoring group, Christina Archer brought up the thought-provoking question, “Is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) even possible?” amid a fascinating discussion on accessibility.

What’s accessible to one person may be inaccessible to another. For example, frequent paragraph returns make content easier to read for users with cognitive disabilities, but the excessive scrolling that results is problematic for users with chronic joint pain or other disabilities affecting fine motor skills.

For some people, a “light mode” interface with a light background and dark text triggers headaches, while for others (including me), a “dark mode” interface with light text on a dark background is the headache trigger.

Thinking beyond accessibility to individual preferences, creating a one-size-fits-all learning experience becomes even more difficult. So, what are we as learning experience designers expected to do? Is there even such a thing as UDL, or is accessibility a Catch 22? Is it possible for any experience to be 100% accessible? With Christina’s permission, these are questions I’m exploring in this week’s post.

Universal Design for Learning Conundrums

As mentioned above, a feature that’s accessible to one person with disabilities may be inaccessible to someone else with different disabilities. Here are some examples of these UDL Conundrums, along with proposed solutions.

Design Feature: Captions

Who It Helps

People with hearing or auditory processing disabilities need captions to access the content.

Why It May Not Work for Everyone

Many autistic users and people with vestibular disorders are sensitive to onscreen movement or may find captions distracting. Some dyslexic users may find captions annoying because they can’t read them as quickly as they appear and disappear.

Proposed Solution

Choice is key. Use closed captions that people can turn off—as opposed to open, or burned-in, captions that are always on the screen. Remember to make your content accessible by default. For example, in Storyline, you can add the following trigger to your first slide to turn on captions by default: “Set Player.DisplayCaptions to value True when the timeline starts on this slide.”

EDIT: The fabulous Diane Elkins sent me this useful tip: “If you go into the Variables Manager, you can change the default setting on the captions variable to True. That turns them on automatically and you don’t need to add any triggers.” Thanks, Diane!

Design Feature: Audio or Video Explanations

Who It Helps

Many people find it easier to learn either by watching someone perform an action or having them explain a concept.

Why It May Not Work for Everyone

People with auditory processing challenges may find it more difficult to learn through audio or video explanations. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may also find this content difficult to use if not captioned correctly. People who are blind may find a video frustrating if the video doesn’t contain audio descriptions. And people who are deaf-blind need a transcript they can translate with braille devices. People with cognitive disabilities may need to refer to written information. And some people—disabled or not—simply prefer to read information. Especially when a learner needs information quickly, in the case of job aids, skimming text or referring back to steps without having to rewind can be more user-friendly.

Proposed Solution

Again, give your learners options. Always provide transcripts for audio or video elements, in addition to closed captions. Also, whenever it makes sense to do so, use chapters in videos to help users skip to the content they need.

Design Feature: Synced Narration and Images

Who It Helps

Mayer’s Principles of Redundancy, Modality, and Multimedia tell us that timing graphics to audio is a more effective way to teach than putting words on a screen (especially when those words are also spoken aloud).

Why It May Not Work for Everyone

Mayer’s Principles apply to the “typical” user, not necessarily the user with disabilities. Assistive technology users may find a learning experience overwhelming when imagery is synced with text, as they listen to a screen reader describe all the images and navigation features, along with the narrator teaching the content.

The synchronization that’s effective for “typical” learners may be lost when a screen reader is added to the mix. In addition, other users may find the synchronized-narration-and-image approach to be less than user-friendly. For example, since my “minor” brain injury, I often struggle with auditory processing as well as memory issues. Captions help with auditory processing, but transcripts are better as a reference when I (inevitably) forget what the narrator just said.

Proposed Solution

Follow accessibility guidelines to make the user experience as smooth as possible. Don’t use audio or video elements that play automatically. One approach is to ask the learners, at the beginning of the course, to choose whether they want media to autoplay or manually play. 

(See Doug Harriman’s thorough eCourse Accessibility Checklist for more information. This version was shared during his TLDC session about Storyline accessibility.)

Be sure that any images that are purely decorative are marked as decorative or have null alt text (alt=””). And provide visual transcripts that include graphics with alt text. I like to use a table format for these, with the graphic in one column and the associated text in another. These are not only a user-friendly option for screen reader users, but they also serve as a useful study aid for anyone.

In some cases, it might be best to create separate versions of a course, as long as we aren’t diminishing the learning experience by doing so.

Design Feature: Sign Interpretation

Who It Helps

Many (but not all) deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals rely on signing, such as American Sign Language (ASL), as their main form of communication. Because signing is a language with its own grammar and syntax, for users whose first language is sign, reading text adds another layer of cognitive load. So, providing sign language interpretation can be very beneficial for these users. Signing can also be helpful for others with disabilities affecting speech or reading comprehension.

Why It May Not Work for Everyone

First, not every deaf or hard-of-hearing person uses sign language, and even when they do, there’s not a universal sign language that works for everyone if you have a global audience. Even among people who use the same language, such as ASL, they may develop their own dialect and unique signs. Second, as I mentioned above, many users—such as autistic people and those with vestibular disorders—are sensitive to onscreen movement.

Scissortail recently completed development of an eLearning course, in Storyline, intended for a global audience. The client designed the course, which provided the learner a choice between American Sign Language and International Sign—or no sign at all.

If you’re not familiar with International Sign (as I wasn’t), it’s not truly a language, but a collection of signs that are shared or similar across multiple sign languages, combined with pantomime that allows signers a rough form of communication when they don’t share a common language.

One challenge we discovered during development was that the interpreter video didn’t always sync well with what was happening on the screen. The imagery and brief text that were timed to the audio narration were out of sync with the interpretation. This could add to the user’s cognitive load rather than making it a better experience for them.

Proposed Solution

The most accessible option that really works for everyone is allowing learners a choice. If interpretation videos are included in an eLearning course, learners should be able to choose whether they want to see them. And, as always, it’s important to know your audience and their needs. Do your learners use ASL, or is another sign language more appropriate? Do you need to offer interpretation in different sign languages? 

Closing Thoughts

So, is Universal Design for Learning even possible? I say yes, with two big caveats.

First, UDL doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all, but instead offering options that best meet learners’ needs. And meeting learners’ needs starts with understanding them—by involving them in the analysis, design, and development process. As with all learning experience design decisions, offering choices to learners is the key to any attempt at “universal” design.

Second, UDL (done right) is more expensive than the “one-size-fits-some” learning experiences most organizations are currently creating. But it’s also the right thing to do. Organizations need to be allocating more of their budget for learning and development so we can create truly inclusive learning experiences with options to meet various learners’ needs.

As to my other question, “Is it possible for any learning experience to be 100% accessible?” I’m inclined to say no—at least if we’re trying for a one-size-fits-all solution. Accessibility is definitely the goal, but it’s complex. What one person needs for accessibility may conflict with another person’s needs. Again, this highlights the importance of options. 

We don’t get a free pass to ignore accessibility by simply offering an alternative, separate-and-maybe-not-equal version. However, we should recognize that sometimes, an alternative version might be the best choice for some users. That said, it should always be their choice—not their only option. That’s just my opinion, and I certainly don’t speak for everyone with disabilities. I’d love to learn what you think.

What other UDL conundrums have you run into? How would you solve them? I’d love to continue the discussion by exploring this topic further. Leave a comment below or continue the conversation by sharing the post to social media.

Many, many thanks to Christina Archer for asking this question and giving me permission to write about it.


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