Universal Design: A Key Concept for Inclusive School Success

Many people with physical disabilities know that ramps and curb cuts are vital to breaking down barriers in order to move freely. At the same time, these adaptations allow many others – stroller pushers, rolling suitcase pullers, bicyclists, and skateboarders – to navigate with greater ease and access. Curb cuts are classic examples of universal design: design that makes places and objects work for people with disabilities and benefit everyone.

A powerful force in architecture and product development, universal design has been applied to education as a key strategy in successful inclusion efforts. Principles and examples of universal design for education can help Essential school educators plan curriculum, learning environments, and assessments that produce meaningful and fully inclusive teaching and learning. Personal learning plans, for example, allow all students access to the curriculum and to have power over their own education in ways that support them in equitable yet unique ways.

First, a look at universal design principles. The Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, is devoted to researching, disseminating, and teaching about universal design for education. CAST’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) states that Universal Design for Learning calls for:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation (From “What is Universal Design for Learning,” www.cast.org/research/udl/index.html)

So how does this work in practice? CAST provides an example of a fourth-grade, standards-aligned, social studies geography unit that meets the needs of a class that contains students with learning disabilities, English language learners, and wide range of reading ability. A comparison of curriculum presentations demonstrates how commitment to universal design creates the potential for more meaningful learning:

Traditional Approach

  1. The teacher provides a brief lecture on the home state. She reminds students of previous studies of land and resources, and the impact of natural resources on population growth, political and land use issues.
  2. Teacher divides the students into working groups to complete their research, map-making, note-taking, and presentation.

Universal Design for Learning Approach

  1. Avoid limiting presentation style. There may be students who do not respond, comprehend, or attend well to a lecture style. Consider the use of media with the presentation, concept maps, or graphics to enhance and illustrate concepts and topics that are introduced and reviewed.
  2. 2When opening the lesson, consider frequent questions, statements of clarification, and solicit student participation.
  3. Consider assigning students to working groups by mixed abilities (heterogeneous grouping) for complementary skills.
  4. Provide demonstrations of performance expectations. (From “Case Study: Reading Challenges in Social Studies,” www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/casestories/cs1)

While both the traditional lesson and the lesson that incorporates universal design reflect a commitment to student as worker, the UDL lesson is designed at the outset to differentiate among different learners’ needs and styles, allowing check-ins for comprehension and understanding, multiple paths of access to the curriculum, and clear expectations.

Another, more general, example: many books are available in multiple formats. Traditional bound texts can often be accessed digitally, via spoken word, or via Braille. Digital access allows book to be read aloud electronically. Type size can be increased or text can be displayed through a refreshable Braille device. This basic step of ensuring that students can access the curriculum from multiple avenues creates the foundation from which universally designed, inclusive, and equitable education can happen.

Because this approach applies throughout the teaching and learning experience, assessments and demonstrations of mastery must include a range of options that take into account students’ particular needs, abilities, and strengths. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) suggests guidelines for universally designed assessments.

  • Flexibility in Use: The design supports a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

(From education.umn.edu/NCEO/TopicAreas/UnivDesign/UnivDesign_FAQ.htm. These principles were adapted from the principles of universal design from the Center for Universal Design at the North Carolina State University.)

A useful lens through which to evaluate universally accessible assessments, the NCEO guidelines also demonstrate the shortfalls of many standardized assessments from the point of view of universal design.

For More on Universal Design for Education

CAST’s resources on Universal Design for Learning offers a useful overview: www.cast.org/udl

CAST’s Teaching Every Student area offers the entire text of Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002) as well as case studies and extensive resources for universal design in education: www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent

Websites that offer full-text online books include:

Organizations that offer audio and Braille texts include:

  • The Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped: www.loc.gov/nls
  • Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic: www.rfbd.org

The National Center on Educational Outcomes offers resources on universally designed assessment (for more on NCEO, see “Where to Go for More: Resources for Essential Schools to Make the Most of Inclusion,” page 22): education.umn.edu/NCEO/TopicAreas/UnivDesign/UnivDesign_topic.htm