Universal Design for Learning - Improved Access for All

Learn about a cutting-edge classroom approach, based in computer technology, that helps all kids learn better.

By Nancy Firchow, M.L.S.

The goal for every student is to learn, but not every child learns in the same way. Kids with disabilities may have an especially difficult time with traditional classroom materials. Today, your child's teachers compensate for variation among their students by adapting how they present information, structure assignments, and test for understanding. In the future, the adaptations may be built into the curriculum materials, thanks to Universal Design for Learning* (UDL). UDL uses computer technology to create an educational environment that allows all students, including those with learning disabilities, to succeed in general education classrooms with minimal use of assistive technology (AT).

Universal Design has its roots in architecture and urban planning. Ramps, automatic doors, and curb cuts were created to provide access to people with physical disabilities but actually ease access for everyone. Think of the last time you pushed a stroller or luggage cart and the broader value of ramps is instantly apparent.

UDL embraces the concept of improved access for everyone and applies it to curriculum materials and teaching methods. Rather than rely on AT to bridge the gap between the material and the student's learning needs, materials designed using UDL concepts have built-in accommodations. Add-on technology is less often needed to translate the material into a mode that enables learning.

Principles of UDL

UDL stretches beyond accessibility for the disabled, however. A teacher's goal is for students to learn skills and understand the subject. Traditional curriculum materials tend to offer only limited flexibility for meeting that goal - often requiring students to adapt to the curriculum. Universally designed curriculum overcomes limitations by incorporating three principles of flexibility into the design:

This built-in flexibility provides into a wider range of options for students to choose from - meaning the curriculum adapts to the student, rather than the other way around.

Let's consider each of these principles and the impact they could have in your child's classroom.

Multiple Methods of Presentation

Flexibility in presentation allows the same concepts to be taught using a variety of methods, media, or materials. How would this look in a classroom?

Multiple Options for Participation

Since one task or teaching method may engage and motivate some kids but bore or frustrate others, UDL allows flexibility in how students interact with the material. It also lets teachers tailor the level of difficulty of assignments, ensuring that each student is sufficiently challenged while meeting the overall goals of the lesson. How would this look in a classroom?

Multiple Means of Expression

With UDL, students are not limited to one way of completing assignments. Instructors can match the curriculum to each child's strengths. How would this look in a classroom?

UDL in the Classroom

To create a UDL environment in general or special education classrooms, teachers need materials and methods that incorporate these three principles. Curriculum materials in an electronic format are the cornerstone of UDL and offer a great deal of flexibility. Electronic materials can be used on and manipulated by computers, making it easy to alter content to meet the needs of different students.

Variations in presentation can make the same text more accessible to all students, especially those with learning disabilities. For example, a social studies text in electronic format:

Strategies that Follow UDL Principles

But with or without computer-based curriculum materials, you can work with your child's teachers to apply UDL principles to his schoolwork. These accommodations are just a few that keep the focus on material to be learned, rather than on the method of presentation or format of response, and offer choices to students:

Because UDL assumes each learner brings individual strengths, needs, interests, and limitations to the classroom, flexibility in curriculum and teaching methods increases access to learning - just like curb cuts and ramps increase physical access.

*Universal Design for Learning is a concept developed by CAST, a leading authority on Universal Design for Learning and whose mission is to expand educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities through the development and innovative uses of technology. Their innovative concepts and research on UDL have been used as a reference in writing this article. For more information about CAST and UDL visit http://www.cast.org/index.html


Reviewed February 2010