Universal Design for Learning


Structuring educational contexts around ability rather than disability

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … ability
  • Knowing is … appropriate action
  • Learner is … an able agent-in-context (systemic)
  • Learning is … developing ability
  • Teaching is … designing




Universal Design for Learning begins with a critique of pervasive and entrenched habits for characterizing responding to variability among students. It identifies two issues with traditional schooling’s attitudes toward learner difference. Firstly, it asserts that disability has been inappropriately defined in terms of the learner. Secondly, it asserts that standardized practices compel a focus on disability (and remediation) rather than ability (and growth). As alternatives, Universal Design for Learning argues that disability is a systemic phenomenon which arises in the interaction of agent and context and, consequently, educational contexts must be designed to be flexible in order to emphasize ability – by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression. Associated discourses include:
  • Accessible Education (2020s) – an increasing prominent catchphrase that is used to refer to strategies and obligations to adapt educational structures and offerings in ways that are accommodated to the specific needs of individual learners. (Contrast: Special Education in Medical Model of (Dis)Ability, and Diversity Education and Inclusive Education in Activist Discourses.)


Universal Design for Learning might be identified as a counter-discourse to the very popular Differentiated Instruction. Both are concerned with addressing differences among learners. They separate radically around notions of difference. Aligning with Ecological Discourses and Emergent Complexity Discourses, Universal Design for Learning approaches difference as a systemic phenomenon – thus regarding it as a source of human potential while highlighting that “disability” is not a quality of the agent, but the agent in the situation. (Differentiated Instruction sees learner difference in terms of the qualities of individuals.) However, despite this dramatic contrast in conceptual framing, the advice to educators is surprisingly similar.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

David Rose; Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)

Status as a Theory of Learning

Universal Design for Learning in not a theory of learning – although, among contemporary educational discourses – it is unusual in invoking principles of learning that are associated with Eco-Complexity Discourses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Universal Design for Learning is a perspective on teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Some modest empirical evidence has been generated in support of the principles of Universal Design for Learning. In terms of our working definition of “scientific,” the strength of the discourse lies largely in its critical attentiveness to its own assumptions about learning, learners, ability, and associated constructs.


  • Accessible Education

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Universal Design for Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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