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Universal Design: Introduction and Background

Strategies for Students with Disabilties-Universal Design LearningStudents often come to the classroom with a variety of needs, skills, talents, and interests. For many learners, the typical curriculum -- which includes goals, instructional methods, classroom materials, and assessments -- is littered with barriers and roadblocks, while supports are relatively few. Faced with an inflexible curriculum, students and teachers are expected to make extraordinary adjustments. UDL turns this scenario around, placing the burden to adapt on the curriculum itself.

Educators, including curriculum and assessment designers, can improve educational outcomes for diverse learners by applying the following principles to the development of goals, instructional methods, classroom materials and assessments:


  • Provide multiple and flexible methods of presentation to give students with diverse learning styles various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Provide multiple and flexible means of expression to provide diverse students with alternatives for demonstrating what they have learned, and
  • Provide multiple and flexible means of engagement to tap into diverse learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.


The term "universal design" is borrowed from the movement in architecture and product development that calls for curb cuts, automatic doors, video captioning, speakerphones, and other features to accommodate a vast variety of users, including those with disabilities. Experience shows that all such flexible designs are less expensive and cumbersome than costly retrofits, and that, in fact, everyone benefits from universal design features, as anyone who has watch video with captions in a busy gym or airport can attest.


Students differ from one another in many ways and present unique learning needs in the classroom setting, yet high standards are important for all students. By incorporating supports for particular students, it is possible to improve learning experiences for everyone, without the need for specialized adaptations down the line. For example, captioned video is of great help to Deaf students, but is also beneficial to students who are learning English, students who are struggling readers, students with attention deficits, and even students working in a noisy classroom.


The advent of digital multimedia, adaptive technologies, the World Wide Web, and other advancements make it possible on a broad scale to individualize education for individual students. Developers and practitioners of UDL apply the inherent flexibility of digital media to individualize educational goals, classroom materials, instructional methods and assessments. Thus each student has an appropriate point-of-entry into the curriculum -- and a pathway towards attainment of educational goals.


The Differences Between Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning

Children with physical or language disabilities may need properly designed wheelchairs, adaptive switches, speech synthesizers, and other assistive devices. Assistive technologies will always have a role in the education of learners with disabilities, and Universal Design for Learning will not eliminate the need for personal assistive devices.


However, exclusive emphasis on assistive technologies places the burden of adaptation on the learner, not the curriculum. The idea that students must procure or be prescribed special individual tools whenever they cannot use standard curricula essentially burdens the victims of poor curriculum design. Curricula should be flexible enough to meet the needs of the greatest possible variety of learners.


As Universal Design for Learning becomes more viable and pervasive, the power of assistive technology can be devoted to providing more efficient interaction with a curriculum that is already access-aware. For students who need it, assistive technology will no longer be required to overcome barriers in a poorly-designed curriculum, but will enhance active interaction with a curriculum that has been designed at the outset to be accessible to all.


Adapted from the Universal Design for Learning Webinar, co-sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Arizona Literacy and Learning Center and the Council for Exceptional Children.