Universal Design for Learning

Most teachers have to adapt instruction for their students and usually don't have a say in choosing the curriculum or designing the materials before they are expected to use them. If the developers of curricular materials anticipated some of the needs that teachers face in inclusive classrooms, such as students who read below grade level or who have organizational or attention-deficit problems, and if they then designed accommodations for these needs into the materials, that would free up teachers to devote more time to teaching and less to adapting the curriculum.

While this may sound like an ideal situation, actually it is neither unrealistic nor far in the future of public school classrooms. Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort in special education to promote curricular materials with built-in adaptations, particularly in digital media, that are flexible and customizable. Known as universal design for learning, the movement is based on the principles behind the universal design movement for access to products and environments for all users, regardless of sensory or physical disabilities. (See Figure 1.)

The educational strategies behind universal design for learning basically underlie any sort of classroom adaptations. When a teacher adapts a curriculum, she or he works to accommodate as many student needs as possible by developing an array of potential supports. An unadapted curriculum generally is one-size-fits-all, but adapted materials can be tailored to the students.

In this way, universally designed materials can accommodate students where they need it, but those supports are incorporated during the development phase, rather than having to be added after the fact. The same strategies that teachers use to adapt inefficient or inconsiderate materials go into universally designed curricular materials.

A history text, for example, is written to include graphic organizers and strategic questions to help students who would find a typical text inaccessible but also to provide a challenge for those who would otherwise find it boring or unengaging. A digital reading program can highlight the text word for word or sentence by sentence for students who have difficulty following along by themselves, or it can say the words out loud for those who need more familiarity with the sounds of what they read. Such adaptations could be designed and provided by teachers, but the more resources that come packaged with the curriculum, the greater its flexibility and the less it has to be modified by the teacher.

By Nancy Safer
Executive Director
The Council for Exceptional Children

*Excerpted from Toward Successful Inclusion of Students with Disabilities: The Architecture of Instruction by Edward J. Kameenui, and Deborah Simmons(1999).

Council for Exceptional Children

Provided in partnership with The Council for Exceptional Children.

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