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Universal Design in the Workplace

Universal Design in the Workplace

Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal Design principles have traditionally been applied to architecture, product design, and the learning environment, but these principles are highly applicable to the work environment as well. 

Background on Universal Design

The Seven Principles of Universal Design originally developed with architecture and product design in mind, are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.  The quintessential example of Universal Design is a zero step building entry, which allows all individuals to use the same entrance, including people using wheelchairs, strollers, and delivery carts.

Universal Design for Learning draws upon these principles and offers three new principles relevant to student learning: multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement.  As an example, captioning videos shown as part of an academic course benefits deaf and hard of hearing students, non-English speakers, those with learning disabilities, visual learners and all users in noisy environments. 

Benefits of Universal Design in the Workplace

Employees are diverse in terms of background and work styles.  If departments design their work environments for a diverse population of employees, they can positively impact hiring, retention, and productivity.  Additionally, when departments integrate Universal Design into their work environments, the need for employees to request individual accommodations through a separate process is reduced, which creates a more similar and equitable experience for everyone.

Principles of Universal Design in the Workplace

The Seven Principles of Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning are applicable to the workplace, as most employees perform work at an external work site at least some of the time, use tools and/or technology, and receive training and professional development.

Additionally, we encourage departments to consider the following principles as part of Universal Design for the Workplace:

  • Flexibility in how work is performed
  • Flexibility in when work is performed
  • Flexibility in where work is performed

Employees are hired to perform work in support of their employers’ vision, mission, and goals.  Universal Design for the Workplace puts the focus on the accomplishment, quality, and timeliness of the work, instead of how, when, and where it is performed. 

For example, positions such as tax accountants and medical transcriptionists can complete work in a variety of locations at virtually any time of day, using a variety of strategies, as long as applicable deadlines are met and the work is of high quality.  Flexibility in how, when, and where work is performed can benefit employees who are disabled or pregnant, those who have caregiving responsibilities, long commutes, or those who are more productive outside of traditional business hours or in environments with fewer people/distractions.   Employees are generally more productive when there is a good fit between their personal work styles and circumstances and policies related to how, when, and where the work can be performed.

Every job is unique and not every job can embody all Universal Design principles.  There may be safety reasons for performing work in a particular way, or it may be essential for an employee to perform all or most work on site.  However, we should strive to integrate Universal Design principles to the greatest extent possible to make work environments accessible, inclusive, and productive. 

Examples of Universal Design in the Workplace

Physical Environment

  • Zero step entries
  • Automatic door openers
  • Wider doorways and hallways


  • Adjustable desks
  • Modular furniture
  • Options for working in private spaces or more open, collaborative spaces 

Tools and Technology

  • Captioning
  • Speech to text software
  • Option of having a desktop or laptop computer

Training and Learning  

  • Distributing meeting agendas in advance and meeting notes afterward
  • Offering a variety of training options: group workshops, one-on-one instruction, online courses
  • Delivering material in a variety of forms: visual, auditory, kinesthetic

Workplace Policies and Practices

  • Family and Medical Leave and other leave policies
  • Not requiring employees to always have their office doors open
  • Dress code flexibility

Flexibility in How Work is Performed

  • Allowing cashiers to choose whether to sit or stand
  • Allowing flexibility in the order in which employees’ perform tasks

Flexibility in When Work is Performed

  • Flexible scheduling, e.g., a daily schedule of 7:00 am – 4:00 pm or 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
  • Compressed work week, e.g., four days of working 10 hours
  • Results-Only Work Environments (ROWE) – Employees are evaluated solely on work performed and are not required to perform work during particular hours 

Flexibility in Where Work is Performed

  • Full-time, part-time, or occasional remote work opportunities