UDL pyramid and Assistive Technology

A female VI student looking on as the male VI student tries out her braille machine.
Two VI students comparing their Braille equipment.

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles were developed by US organisation, CAST, with the goal of “eliminating barriers from the learning environment” (Access Project, 2011). The three UDL principles are engagement, representation, and action and expression. There are many resources available to help us understand and reflect on these principles but a good starting point is CAST’s own web page, About Universal Design for Learning. The principles and guidelines within them work really well to help a lecturer or seminar leader to reflect on how they can work more inclusively for everyone.

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pyramid by AHEAD.ie complements the UDL principles by helping us to think about how students can be supported along a continuum. There are four levels to the UDL pyramid. The base of the pyramid (Level 1) is the broadest and shows general universal desig principles help the majority of people. Level 2 groups together people of similar needs. Level 3 is where we make individual accommodations and Level 4 is how we might work with people who have personal assistants to help them. As we reviewed our assistive technology provision for staff and students at the University, it became a useful framework for us to view our actions and recommendations against the levels.

The UDL pyramid from AHEAD.ie

Following a review of the assistive technology provision as the University by the e-accessibility working group, culminating in a report by Richard Walker to the Accessibility Coordination Group, we proposed several actions to be adopted. These actions are broken down into the different levels of support we could provide based on the UDL pyramid.

Level 1, Universal design for the majority of students.

  • Promote the accessibility tools built into operating systems.
  • Promote tools that can help a wide range of needs – mind mapping, organisation, time keeping and focus tools, reading and writing text, speech to text and text to speech.
  • Promote digital skills so people know how to personalise systems, use alternative formats, use available tools listed above.
  • Ensure IT support and systems are able to support typical accessibility use cases, eg text to speech (are voices installed and accessible from virtual desktop?), magnification, high contrast, font size settings etc. 
  • Install universal software to help create or use accessible content, eg adding mathjax to the VLE, installing Mathtype, Blackboard Ally, Texthelp Read&Write and EquatIO, ePub readers. Promote these. 
  • Provide all staff with USB headsets and mics.
  • Create accessible content for both students and staff.
  • Provide accessibility checkers to help everyone.
  • Ensure all systems (exams, reading lists, student and staff processes etc) can accommodate a range of disabilities.

Level 2, Students with similar needs.

  • Where students have been provided with tools through DSA suppport, provide additional skills support to help them use the tools in conjunction with university systems.
  • Run networking groups for users with similar needs.
  • Consider site licences where possible or install open source versions: Zoomtext, NVDA, Dragon Dictate, Sonocent Audionotetaker or Glean to name a few.
  • Provide accessibility equipment like extra monitors, ergonomic mice, whiteboards, other relevant equipment to staff and students.
  • Provide a pool of assistive technology (AT) that can be tested to help determine best fit for individuals.
  • Provide specific guides that can help users to navigate systems, eg Introduction to Blackboard VLE for visually impaired users email text (UoY login required).
  • Promote good practice in accommodating diverse needs.
  • Have staff AT support and student AT support roles.

Level 3, Individual accommodation.

  • Notetakers, live captioners, signers, transcribers or other helpers are provided for classes or meetings.
  • Provide guidance to support staff to maximise use of alternative formats and tools.
  • Budget available to ensure staff or students have most up to date tools and software to work effectively.
  • Budget available to help department research the best way to accommodate staff or students.

Level 4, Personal Assistant.

  • Personal assistant provides most of the assistance to the staff or student.
  • Provide guidance for personal assistants so they can access systems and resources for the staff or student.
  • Provide guidance to personal assistants to maximise use of alternative formats and tools.

How the UDL pyramid has helped.

The UDL pyramid isn’t suggesting that we can leave it down to assistants and helpers to create the equitable learning experience for students. If we don’t include assistants and helpers as stakeholders in our action plans, we miss out on enhancing the disabled students’ learning experience. Conducting user research with students made us aware of an eco-system of helpers, from the alternative formats team in the library to notetakers and transcribers. Their digital skills can impact on the learning experience of our students.

It’s an interesting exercise to take any action plans for inclusive and accessible learning that a University might have and apply different lens and frameworks to it to see where the gaps are in provision. At a course level, you can use the UDL principles and guidelines. At a programme level, Alistair McNaught’s matrix template, explained in the Future Teacher webinar on Designing Technology Enhanced programmes brings in the inclusive element sometimes missing from programme design frameworks. At an organisation level, AbilityNet and McNaught’s HE and FE maturity model is a thorough way to review whole organisation approaches. From these reviews, a long list of action points will evolve. It can be hard to put these in some kind of order, and you may find, like me, that the UDL pyramid has been a good first step towards breaking down the actions from a long list to one we could map to the different levels of support. It made the action list easier to communicate and prioritise.


The UDL pyramid is just one ontology with which to view our students where inclusive education is concerned. Other ontologies could be used and they may result in different gaps and different ways to organise our actions. At this stage of our action planning, it has proved to be a useful tool to guide our thinking and provided some order to a long list of ideas and recommendations. Let us know if you try it out and find any insights if you use it.

(The University of York has been involved in an Erasmus-funded project, TINEL, on embedding UDL principles in teaching practice. Look out for our UDL conference in Dec 2021 on the TINEL website.)

Further reading:

Access Project. (2011). Universal design for learning: a concise introduction. Colorado State University. http://accessproject.colostate.edu/udl/modules/udl_introduction/udl_concise_intro.pdf

Universal design for learning: a best practice guideline. (2017). ‘Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education – License to Learn. https://ahead.ie/publications-for-educational-staff?id=73&qstring=cGc9NCZzb3J0PQ==

View also:

Last updated 1 June 2021.

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