Universal Design for Learning (UDL) emerged from the architectural concept of universal design. Ron Mace,North Carolina State University, envisioned universal design as a means to promote the design of products and environments that would appeal to all people, yet meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide access for individuals with disabilities. These principles established a framework for developing design standards that permit the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest range of individuals.
Physical access to classrooms and other educational facilities was an important first step toward accessibility within the educational process. Many schools began to embrace the philosophy of inclusion by physically including students with disabilities in the classroom. However, this did not ensure equal access to the general curriculum or opportunities for students with disabilities to benefit from what the school curriculum offered. Typical curriculum in schools tends to take a "one-size-fits-all" approach, which is evidenced by the strong emphasis on textbook instruction. Textbooks require time-consuming modifications to become accessible to many students with disabilities, such as facilitating a means for a student with physical disabilities to turn pages, or for a student with reading challenges to gain meaning from grade level content.
Founded in 1984 as the Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST has earned international recognition for its development of innovative, technology-based educational resources and strategies. CAST applied the concept of universal design to a framework for curriculum reform in education. Based on brain research, the Universal Design for Learning concept focused on providing flexibility in curriculum so that the diversity of learners found in today's schools would have access and opportunity to learning that would meet individual needs. By applying UDL, educators can minimize barriers and provide supports and challenges appropriate to each learner.
Just as with the universal design in architecture, the basis premise to UDL is that the flexibility within curriculum must be integrated at the development stages, not as a retrofit after the fact.