Curriculum Access for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities: The Promise of UDL
How can a UDL framework increase access to the general curriculum for students with low-incidence disabilities?
- Universal Design Revisited
- UDL and the Curriculum
- UDL Components
- The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)
- Curriculum Flexibility for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities
Support for the application of universal design principles to the design of educational technology, media, materials, learning environments, and teaching routines appears to be widespread. Wood (2002) cites Lou Danielson from the U. S. Office of Special Education Programs as stating that the concept of universal design supports the kind of teaching practice that enables students to reach educational goals. Nolet and McLaughlin (2000), Wehmyer (et al., 2002), Male (2003) and Turnbull (et al., 2002) all list CAST Inc.'s principles for the universal design of learning environments. Such broad-based support for this new framework for curriculum reform is evidence of great promise that the flexibility UDL can provide will greatly facilitate the complex processes of teaching and learning for all students, including those with disabilities.
We began with a broad exploration of universal design in order to provide background information on UD as an idea, presented several perspectives and applications, and concluded with a description of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. UDL, as envisioned by Rose and Meyer (2002), applies to learning in general. In the present context, however, UDL applies more directly to curriculum design. The principles of UDL we have outlined are intended to serve as a framework for guiding curriculum reform. Ensuring access to the general curriculum includes increasing student involvement/participation in the general curriculum, as well as the provision of opportunities for students to demonstrate effective progress in the general curriculum as measured by fair and appropriate assessment systems. Greater access may be gained through reforming the general curriculum according to the principles of UDL. We now present an array of solutions inspired or implied by UDL to improve curriculum access for students with low-incidence disabilities.
Universal Design Revisited
Previously, we described the built environment as a kind of recapitulation of a natural ecological layout, once inhabited by early humans. The terrain of the natural environment, along with the structures that occupied that terrain, simply afforded a wide range of human behaviors. The built environment, in essence, simply brought under control the location and distribution of those affordances. Instead of having to locate a place that afforded river crossing, a built bridge recapitulated (and improved upon) structures in nature that allowed a river to be crossed. The evolutionary concept of natural selection dictates that the fittest of humans survive. These humans have tended to fashion a built environment to suit their own purposes and preferences. A "survival of the fittest" notion would predict that the built environment would bear a resemblance to and be a refinement of the natural environment. However, humans have evolved into creatures with a highly complex central nervous system that supports widely variant behaviors and characteristics. Consequently, the built environment in all its myriad manifestations reflects the values, preferences, and needs of its designers and users, not just a simple recapitulation of the natural environment.
The needs and preferences of individuals who differ markedly from the norm have not often been taken into account by designers and builders at most periods of human history. The elderly and the disabled, for example, were almost always marginalized by the built environment and compelled to find place in alternate environments. Such alternate environments were often isolating and self-perpetuating. Normative community standards and practices emerged from such ostracism and became entrenched in the broader society, largely inert to the possibility of change. Misguided notions of care and protection toward this marginalized subpopulation took hold as a means of bringing their ostracism in line with values espoused by the majority of a community. People on the margins have always been in the minority, and, as such, have historically had their needs and wishes ignored by the majority. Only democratic ideals of fundamental rights, empowerment, and self-determination have challenged this legacy of social isolation and exclusion. The universal design movement in architecture stands as one example of how these ideals can successfully overcome or challenge this legacy of disempowerment by offering new perspectives on old, exclusionary habits of thought.
Many who have extolled the virtues of universal design cite sidewalk curb cuts as a prime example of how UD approaches and accomplishes change. Wheelchairs are liberating for people with motor challenges, but still present barriers to mobility in environments that contain steep grades, sidewalk curbs, and stairways. One way to reduce these physical barriers is to improve wheelchair technology to help overcome these remaining problems, and this is indeed a laudable pursuit. On the other hand, the UD way of thinking encourages changing the design of environments to accommodate current wheelchair technology, rather than waiting for wheelchair technology to solve these problems, since individuals in wheelchairs need solutions to these problems as soon as possible and not in some potential, far-off future where all wheelchairs are technologically advanced enough to overcome virtually all obstacles. Curb cuts are solutions that can be easily implemented today, using currently available technology, and thus represent a preferable solution to waiting around for technological improvements that may never come. As an unexpected side benefit, however, the introduction of curb cuts to assist wheelchair users also turns out to assist many other members of the general population who are not disabled. For example, people who frequently use baby strollers, skateboards, in-line skates, and shopping carts also benefit from the wide-scale availability of curb cuts. These incidental and unanticipated benefits of UD attract a great deal of attention, for they heavily imply that changes made based on UD principles benefit a far greater number of people than were originally targeted by those changes, and in ways that we can rarely accurately predict. Moreover, designs that consider UD from the start provide aesthetic benefits as they seamlessly integrate functionality with structure from the beginning; retrofitting existing designs, by contrast, often yields ugly add-ons that are unappealing and sometimes inefficient for their purpose(s). Consistent and thoughtful application of UD to the built environment, therefore, reflects a pro-active approach to advancing a democratic and inclusive society.
In an ideal democratic society, communities (and the environments in which they are situated) should be freely accessible by all members of that society to the maximum extent feasible. Congress made this right clear and explicit with the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of that Act has prohibited discrimination against citizens with disabilities by entities funded or assisted by the federal government. Later, in 1990, Congress extended this prohibition to the private sector by insisting that all entities engaging in commerce with the public make every reasonable accommodation to provide access to citizens with disabilities.
UDL and the Curriculum
The Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 set the stage for each student to receive a curriculum based on standards in core subject areas and for schools and school districts to be held accountable for student academic achievement through state administered assessment systems. IDEA '97 first extended participation in standards-based reform to include all students with disabilities. NCLB required schools and school districts to ensure that all students make "adequate yearly progress" toward those state standards. With the exception of 1–3% of school-aged students—those with significant cognitive disabilities who may pursue alternate standards—all students must be held to the same standards of proficiency.
Just as UD in architecture has opened up communities to the widest possible range of citizens, so too can UDL transform and help deliver a curriculum to the widest possible range of students. Federal legislation has guided educational reform since 1994 by setting great value on a single, high-quality education for all students. Just as there is a need to continue improving wheelchair design and functionality, there is a need to advance the development of tools and intervention strategies to reduce the impact of disability in our schools. UD in architecture dramatically improved the mobility of wheelchair users. UDL applied to curriculum dramatically improves access, participation, and progress in the general curriculum for students with disabilities. In the same way that curb cuts advocated by UD yielded unforeseen positive consequences for the non-disabled, UDL has the potential to provide learning benefits to the non-disabled student population even as it opens the doors to the general curriculum for students with disabilities. In envisioning a curriculum designed according to the principles of UDL, Rose and Meyer (2002) argued that the flexibility and malleability of a curriculum rich in new digital media and technology tools would also support the needs of students without disabilities. Students who are English language learners, students who score below proficiency on state assessments, and students who are gifted and talented can all benefit from a curriculum that is no longer fixed or static. The traditional, one-size-fits-all curriculum is proving to be an entirely inadequate solution for problems that plague our schools in this era of standards-based reform. The textbook, a mainstay of traditional curriculum, is static in form and, by its design, inaccessible to students who are blind or dyslexic. It is also quite a hostile medium for students who have organizational difficulties, attentional challenges, or cognitive impairments. New means of presenting material are required.
At a time when students with disabilities were excluded from pursuing state standards and participating in state-level accountability systems, special or parallel curriculum for addressing the disability-related needs of students was defensible (Hitchcock, et al., 2002). Priorities dictated an approach that focused on deficits rather than on opportunities. Today, with the requirement that all students, including students with disabilities, must participate in and benefit from standards-based reform, previously static, inflexible curriculum must be transformed into a more flexible system of resources. UDL can accomplish this transformation.
UDL is founded on a view of individual differences quite distinct from that of traditional psychometrics. Psychometrics from the time of Binet asserted that a single, underlying trait called "intelligence," which varied only in quantity or amount but not in underlying nature, accounted for academic achievement. UDL is based on new brain research (Rose & Meyer, 2002) that asserts that the intelligence of individuals differs qualitatively according to how three distinct neural networks interact. Virtually infinite combinations of learning preferences emerge in an individual based on variation in the way they receive information, act upon it strategically, and engage in learning activities affectively. If human intelligence varied quantitatively according to a single factor, the logical implication would be that the more of this single attribute an individual possessed, the more of the curriculum they could absorb, and, therefore, the more material they should be able to access. Historically, an extension of this logic has led to tracking or ability grouping, and an entirely separate, usually inferior, curriculum for students with disabilities. However, from a UDL perspective, qualitative differences in the ways in which individuals learn implies that similar qualitative differences are possible and should be available in the curriculum itself so that each learner may approach it in the manner best suited to her or his preferred learning mode. To guide this qualitative transformation of curriculum, UDL advances three main design principles (Rose & Meyer, 2002) based on three brain networks recognized by neuroscience:
- To support diverse recognition networks, educators should provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation. For example, when introducing students to a new concept or unit, a teacher may provide multiple structures in presenting information, such as a lecture, a digitized text, an activity-based exploration, or a demonstration.
- To support diverse strategic networks, educators should provide multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship. For example, when a teacher requests student responses to demonstrate understanding and knowledge, he or she could provide a range of tools that allow students to respond in various formats, such as in writing, orally, with a slide show, with a video, or with a drawing.
- To support diverse affective networks, educators should provide multiple, flexible options for engagement. For example, a teacher may allow students to select from an area of interest within a topic to research or study. Students could be allowed free selection instead of forced assignment of one of the natural resources in a geographic area under study to obtain in-depth information.
In forging a new view of curriculum fashioned from these three main design principles, Hitchcock (et al., 2002a; 2002b) examined four essential components of curriculum: goals, methods, materials, and assessments.
Goals come from standards, and standards are now generally applicable to all students. UDL dictates that goals must be stated broadly to allow educators and designers to incorporate necessary accommodations or alternate entry points to curriculum. In writing an essay, for example, goals should allow for the use of assistive technologies as alternatives to paper and pencil. Goals should also allow students to use photographs to tell a story at a lower level of literacy, if this is the level of entry for a particular student. Broadly-stated goals require members of an IEP team to do the hard work of selecting appropriate accommodations (as defined earlier). For example, general educators and special educators working together should be able to establish meaningful accommodations and modifications that provide necessary instructional support while allowing the appropriate level of challenge.
For example, Braille reading and writing tools and/or the use of screen-reading software and hardware are appropriate and meaningful accommodations for a blind student to employ in accessing and working with Social Studies content. When used in the classroom, these accommodations should carry through into assessment as well. On the other hand, having a classroom aide read the content of a lesson aloud and write down a student's spoken responses would not be appropriate accommodations. Having such "over-accommodations" in place would deprive blind students of the opportunity to establish independent literacy skills in reading and writing. Without a solid team approach, the appropriate type and level of accommodations for each student may not be identified and supported. For example, a qualified teacher of the visually impaired would complete a learning media assessment (LMA) for a blind student and implement an instructional program in literacy skills for him or her, such as Braille reading and writing and the use of assistive technologies. On the same team, a highly-qualified teacher of Social Studies would have subject-matter knowledge and expertise in designing units that bring content to life. Together, these teachers would provide an opportunity for greatest likelihood that their blind student would achieve high standards in an independent and authentic manner.
Broadly-stated goals can allow students with significant cognitive impairments to enter core content domains at developmentally appropriate and meaningful levels. Again, the collaborative potential of an IEP team is crucial to implementing instruction that targets a student's functional skills while retaining the integrity of a content area. For example, composing an essay consisting of a sequence of photos to tell a story about a field trip could have embedded within it a myriad of functional skill clusters as well as prerequisites of essay writing. Such an achievement for a severely disabled student could be assessed as an alternate proficiency standard within the framework of English/Language Arts
Teaching methodologies abound. Some so-called effective teaching practices function independently of subject matter, while other pedagogies vary with content area being taught. Some methodologies are cognitive in nature, providing students with advance organizers, big-picture perspectives, puzzlements, or purpose-setting activities. A student learning from a cognitive perspective proceeds as a manner of "hypothesis testing" in which activities unfold to confirm or deny what students predict or expect.
Contrasting methodologies are behavioral in focus, breaking complex learning down into manageable sequences of stimulus-response connections. Student learning progresses through chains of simple to complex skill sequences in which cues are made explicit and redundant, and responses are relatively easy to chart for data collection and analysis.
The effectiveness of any particular methodology varies depending on the characteristics of learners and the context in which learning occurs (Jackson, Harper, & Jackson, 2002). Diversity and heterogeneity in the classroom, therefore, require teachers to select and apply a variety of teaching approaches from those methods with which they have an acceptable level of expertise (Jackson & Harper, 2002). UDL can greatly enhance almost any teaching approach because it assists teachers with systematic thinking about modes of presentation, forms of expression, and alternatives for engagement.
Rose and Meyer (2002) provide a series of UDL templates to support teacher planning. UDL templates allow teachers to profile their students according to their strengths and challenges in the three areas of reception, expression, and engagement. Additional templates guide teachers to discover curriculum and instructional barriers and to identify UDL solutions. While it appears that UDL is heavily reliant upon digital media and technology tools, the principles of UDL apply quite reasonably to a wide range of instructional methodologies, many of which are low-tech in nature. Cooperative learning, flexible grouping, peer-mediated instruction, and thematic learning are all well grounded in the research literature (Jackson, Harper, & Jackson, 2002), and when applied to classroom instruction, provide the kinds of flexibility that UDL requires. Teachers can plan student activities that utilize multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement based on their analyses of student profiles generated by completed UDL templates (Rose & Meyer, 2002).
Hands-on material in a typical curriculum is predominantly print-based, and, as such, it is static and inflexible. For example, a page in a textbook displays information (print and images) in one way only. If that display is not accessible to blind or dyslexic or other students, the textbook must somehow be transformed so that it can be "re-displayed" in Braille or through synthetic speech. Many years ago, this process involved hand-transcription into Braille or reading text into a tape recorder. Later, this process involved scanning text into a computer and converting the scanned images into text files for Braille translation or synthetic speech output. While these earlier approaches have not been completely abandoned, more recently, the process of transforming print-based materials has involved obtaining digital source files for textbooks and stripping away non-essential or unnecessary code to render a digital document more easily convertible to Braille or e-text for text-to-speech access. Although a remarkable advancement over hand translation, even this process often fails to get materials into the hands of blind, dyslexic, and other students at critical points of instruction (i.e., when non-disabled students access materials).
An analogy can be drawn between educational materials in a curriculum and physical structures in architecture. It is inconceivable that a public school building could be constructed today without wheelchair access. It should be equally untenable for public schools to purchase curriculum materials that are inaccessible to students with disabilities, who are entitled by federal and state law to receive a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Access, participation, and progress in the general curriculum requires far more than access to physical spaces in classrooms and school buildings. Schools and school districts must make every reasonable effort to ensure that students with disabilities have on-time access to the same instructional resources as non-disabled students. A case-by-case reactive approach on the part of schools and school districts is hardly feasible; and because it rarely succeeds, it cannot be considered a reasonable solution.
As with adapting physical environments, the solution to adapting curriculum materials resides in their design. Fortunately, much of the hard work has already been done by the publishing industry. The current state-of-the-art in publishing dictates that a textbook begins in digital form. Interestingly, many approaches to making textbooks accessible result in restoring the textbook to something resembling its original digital state before conversion (for example, to Braille). Textbooks and other instructional resources consist of many digital elements (text, tables, images) electronically laid out in "pages" using software. These digital source documents drive the modern-day equivalent of the printing press. They can now be rendered in a file format that makes them easily transformable into accessible media for qualifying students with disabilities and, potentially, other students.
Stahl (2004) has recently reviewed the current status and future prospects of accessible materials. He notes that 80% of curriculum in schools is driven by the ubiquitous textbook and that schools spend, on average, $10,000 per year on textbook purchases. Clearly, textbooks are the mainstays of the American educational enterprise. Exemption from federal copyright law (known as the Chaffee Amendment) allows recognized not-for-profit entities to convert published textbooks into alternative accessible media for so-called print-disabled individuals, without obtaining permission from the publisher or rights holder. Stahl points out a number of ambiguities in the 'Chaffee exemption' that account for a wide range of practices among organizations devoted to providing accessible materials to individuals with disabilities. Stahl also describes a vast array of requirements with which textbook publishers must comply in order to do business with many states. The current state of the textbook transformation industry, according to Stahl, is a largely inefficient, redundant, and ineffective system for getting accessible materials into the hands of students in need at the point of instruction.
The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)
Stahl details a remedy on the horizon for this dilemma: the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). The NIMAS is a standard of guidelines for the production of digital source files for print-based materials based on XML and the DAISY Consortium's ANZI/NISO 239.86 file format standard, the purpose of which is to enable publishers and others to provide standardized source files of their content from which a variety of outputs can be produced. (For more information, see http://nimas.cast.org/.) Educational publishers welcome a single file format into which they can now render their source documents, rather than having to respond to separate state mandates or individual appeals from local schools. Conversion houses—authorized entities that transform digital source documents into Braille, e-text, or large print—also welcome a single, workable file format. The NIMAS, now part of the IDEA amendments of 2004, is intended to streamline the process of transforming print materials into accessible digital resources for students with disabilities.
As of this writing, the NIMAS is a standard in its infancy. It holds great promise for the future, outlining specifications to make materials accessible not just to blind and dyslexic students, but also to deaf students and those with significant cognitive challenges. Any curriculum based on standards that is intended to be applicable to every student will have to be accessible. Digital media and technology tools can provide that access, and many other learners and their teachers will discover the value of flexible digital media—an impact of perhaps even greater significance. As Rose and Meyer (2000) state, "the future is in the margins." Looking ahead to innovations in educational technology, Meyer and Rose have argued that what is learned about the benefits of UDL for students on the margins will one day benefit all learners. Just as curb cuts and captioned television benefit a far wider population than originally envisioned, so too will the flexibility found in digital media benefit English language learners, low-proficiency students, and those with special gifts and talents.
In the near future, the NIMAS will unleash the power of accessible multimedia. Text transformed from NIMAS-compliant files will have text-to-speech capability, including images; collapsible/expandable content display; adjustable reading levels; and embedded definitions, comprehension prompts, instructional supports, and assessment(s). All of this flexibility can be designed into universally accessible multimedia. Such is the promise of UDL for students with a wide variety of learning needs and interests.
Assessment must occur on many levels, and it must accomplish multiple purposes. Formative assessment in classrooms may occur daily to provide a continuous record of progress. Diagnostic testing in Reading and Math, for example, may occur episodically to identify skills deficits. Curriculum-based evaluation and standardized achievement testing may occur regularly to measure curriculum and instruction effectiveness. Standards-based or large-scale assessment may be carried out to determine proficiency against state standards. For any given student, school personnel must be able to take apart or disaggregate these multiple sources of information to plan further instruction, select curriculum resources, and measure progress. For all students, including students with disabilities, assessments must be accurate and measure only what they are intended to measure. For students with disabilities, assessment procedures may currently require an entirely alien response set and consequently end up measuring behavior unrelated to the intended purpose of an assessment. For example, blind students who learn concepts using three-dimensional models may not recognize the critical features of these models when they are displayed as two-dimensional, tactile graphics.
To the greatest extent possible, assessments must be authentic, requiring students to perform skills and create products in a manner similar to that in which they have learned those skills and product creation during instruction. The more accessible digital content and technology tools are infused or integrated into curriculum, the more assessment must incorporate the use of these assets. Accessible digital content and technology tools widen the range of learner characteristics that can be included in a learning environment. That is, technology extends the reach of curriculum to a more diverse population of students. By applying UDL to assessment as well as to instructional and learning materials, UDL's flexibility results in the same greater access and widened participation in testing as it does in teaching and learning.
For example, when assessments are built into a learning medium, they can provide students with immediate corrective feedback. More dramatically, content complexity can be adjusted dynamically to a student's level of challenge. When learning media contain built-in assessments, monitoring and reporting of student progress is greatly facilitated. With digital content and delivery, the distinction between curriculum and assessment becomes less apparent. Assessment informs both student and teacher and adjusts such features of curriculum as pace and mode of presentation.
Dolan and Hall (2001) and Dolan and Rose (2000) describe how large-scale assessments can be greatly improved through the application of principles of UDL. Standard accommodations for students with disabilities are generally adaptations of the traditional paper-and-pencil test format. As with the example of a hard copy textbook cited above, such adaptations are usually far from optimal and often measure constructs not intended for assessment by a test developer; for example, a student's performance on a Math test may depend more heavily on their ability to read the questions than on their ability to solve its Math problems. Designing assessment systems from the ground up to be accessible would remove or reduce many of the impediments to obtaining accurate and valid measures of student performance. Digital assessments would permit multiple and flexible modes of item presentation, multiple and flexible means of responding to item prompts, and a variety of ways of engaging students in the assessment process.
Curriculum Flexibility for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities
Students with low-incidence disabilities constitute a small subset of the total number of students with disabilities. Although they present with a wide variety of complex disabilities, students in this category have been aggregated because they present unique challenges for local schools and communities. Their needs tend to arise from significant medical-related issues, and therefore they tend to have severe and/or complex health-related challenges in obtaining a public education. Consequently, greater intensities of supports are frequently necessary to enable school and community inclusion. Highly specialized services and supports often require specialized environments and highly-trained personnel to support daily routines. Families and other decision-makers must consider the concept of the least restrictive environment somewhat differently than conventional wisdom would suggest. The school nearest a student's home may not prove to be their "least restrictive environment." Thus, schools and communities must continue to identify a range of placement options for students with low-incidence disabilities. While acknowledging these and other challenges, we present a series of recommendations that increase access, participation, and progress in the general curriculum for students with low-incidence disabilities:
- Schools must make their general curriculum explicit. How do local school mission and vision statements align with their state's standards? What community standards and practices are embedded in the general curriculum? What values, preferences, and statements about quality-of-life or ideal adult outcomes are reflected in the general curriculum?
- Schools must examine their curriculum in terms of its flexibility. To what extent do current curriculum resources lend themselves to multiple means of presentation to learners? To what extent do current curriculum resources enable a variety of means for learners to demonstrate what they know and can do? To what extent do current curriculum resources permit a variety of alternative means of engagement?
- Schools and communities must adopt a life-cycle approach for planning and coordinating supports for low-incidence-disability students from birth into adulthood. IEP teams must determine students' current levels of performance (entry points) within state frameworks of the general curriculum. How do current levels of intensities of supports align with curriculum frameworks? How can instructional resources be arranged to blend essential life skills with entry points in the general curriculum?
- Schools and communities must adopt a full-services perspective for integrating comprehensive services for students and families. What are the medical, legal, recreational, and respite resources available in the community that could wrap around families through cooperative agreement to achieve better, more enduring results?
- IEP teams must actively engage general education personnel to ensure responsiveness of general curriculum offerings. What model of collaboration will work best to ensure that content-area experts contribute to planning processes along with special education and related services personnel?
- IEP teams must assist families with the identification of open-ended, quality-of-life, person-centered goals. What are the potential sources of informal supports in a school and a community? How can extended family members, neighbors, and circles of friends support students and their families?
- IEP teams must align person-centered goals with general curriculum frameworks and determine individually appropriate instructional accommodations and curriculum modifications. What skills need to be taught? How can skills be supported or assisted? What skills can be embedded in the general curriculum?
- IEP teams must determine what specially-designed instruction, resources, and ancillary aids are necessary for achieving goals for their students. What access or compensatory skills need to be taught in order engage students more productively in the general curriculum and prepare them for independent community living?
- Criteria for standards attainment and/or the qualities of authentic products must be specified in an IEP and regarded as outcomes for program accountability. Assessment accommodations and alternate assessments need to be better grounded in meaningful and more authentic tasks.
- Access to and participation in the general curriculum must be enabled through the creation or adoption of universally designed curriculum resources. States and local school authorities must commit to the NIMAS in selecting and/or developing instructional materials.
- Assists must be selected from an array of options to support students' independent participation in instructional environments and testing situations. Where curriculum falls short of universal design, technologies need to be applied that afford the greatest amount of autonomy and independence along with the least amount of restriction.
- Schools and communities must identify a means of dignifying the successes of students who complete a free, appropriate, and public school education and transition into adulthood as independent, productive, and participating citizens. Success must be defined more broadly than high school graduation. Students must be recognized for their unique accomplishments.