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Instructional Design & Support

UDL & Accessibility: What’s the Difference?

One common and very important question that often comes up in conversation is what the difference is between “accessibility” and “universal design for learning” (UDL). The terms are sometimes (mis)used interchangeably; however, they are significantly different and mutually supportive.

“Isn’t UDL just accessibility?”

I love this question. The strength of this question is that it provides an opportunity to help give shape to what UDL is and does so by relating UDL to a more familiar construct. It is, essentially, a compare/contrast question, a format that has been shown to be versatile and effective for higher order thinking (Silver, 2010).

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this question asked. In fact, I have heard at least three varieties of this question multiple times, whereby my colleague was interested in how UDL differed from accommodations models. Others have wondered if UDL could be accomplished in online environments by following WCAG 2.0 guidelines or other such accessibility-focused checklists. In this article, I want to explore how the constructs of UDL, Differentiated Instruction, Accommodations, Assistive Technology, and generalized Accessibility relate, overlap, and differ in signifiant ways.

Access… for whom? to what?

For me, the entire conversation revolves around the general concept of “accessibility.” It’s useful to consider that accessibility always has implied users and objects of accessibility; that is, when we speak of accessibility, we are discussing ensuring that certain individuals (users) have access to something (object of accessibility). The target user and object of accessibility call for removal of fundamentally different kinds of barriers.

For example, if the goal is to provide learners with physical access to a classroom, regardless of their mobility needs, then accessibility focuses on removing physical barriers such as narrow doorways and aisles, providing alternatives to stairways, etc. On the other hand, if the goal is to ensure that content is accessible for learners with varying sensory abilities, barriers may be in the form of static materials (such as print textbooks), with solutions ranging from the employment of assistive technology (such as reader pens) to proactive shifts toward use of digital material like e-textbooks that may be more accessible for diverse users.

And that’s usually where we stop.

These examples in the above paragraphs show the most common conception of accessibility. In this view, accessibility is “for” people with disabilities and provides access to learning environments and content/materials. One of the reasons we stop here is that this is the extent of legal mandate. ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, for example, are explicitly focused on individuals with disabilities and spell out anti-discriminatory regulations that in education contexts are mostly related to physical accessibility and content accessibility.

This narrow perspective on accessibility, while critical, addresses the needs of a few. A foundational change begins when we design for accessibility that benefits everyone, not just students with disabilities, especially when we design for internalized objects of accessibility (such as access to learning). Thus, in the graphic below, these points suggest that we have tended to focus on accessibility especially in the bottom left quadrant (narrow users, external focus), and almost exclusively in the bottom half (external focus). In our discussions of expanding accessibility, I mean expanding it both “upward” (more internal/cognitive objects of accessibility) and “rightward,” (more universal forms of accessibility).


A 2-dimensional plane showing range of accessibility.


What we traditionally associate with accessibility are changes that fit best with approximately the bottom-left regions of the plane figure above. UDL extends the range of accessibility by designing for variability in general (rather than focusing on individuals) and by shifting the focus from external supports to internal skill development and expertise among learners. These are not competitive at all, but rather work best in synergy.


  1. Accessibility is a broad concept, far broader than we have traditionally recognized. It is important to conceptualize it in terms of who is gaining access to what.
  2. Methods of providing accessibility can meaningfully be “plotted” based on the target user of the accessible service or design and the object of accessibility (that to which the user gains access).
  3. UDL expands on what we traditionally understand to be “accessibility,” by expanding on both who gains access (everyone!) and what is accessed (learning skills).

So, next time you hear “isn’t UDL just accessibility?,” I hope you’ll have some ideas for how to respond so as to give shape to the different models and can make choices as to which makes the most sense for a given situation, setting, and need!