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Curriculum Access for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities: The Promise of UDL

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What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?



A major premise of this report is that access to the curriculum for students with low-incidence disabilities is greatly enhanced by universal design. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a particular framework that applies to education. More specifically, UDL is an approach that can guide curriculum reform. A universally-designed curriculum includes multiple means of representation (to allow various ways of acquiring information and knowledge), multiple means of expression (to allow alternatives for demonstrating knowledge), and multiple means of engagement (to challenge appropriately, to motivate, and to allow learners to express and participate in their interests). A number of current contrasting approaches to universal design will be described. We conclude with an explanation of UDL. This will allow the reader to keep UDL in mind while progressing through subsequent sections until UDL solutions for curriculum access are more closely examined in our conclusion.


Origins of Universal Design

Architecture reveals the extent to which humankind can establish dominion over the natural environment by harnessing resources that it has to offer. Architectural design can be subjected to all manner of criteria, including beauty, convenience, utility, durability, safety, and even exclusivity. Only in recent times has the criterion of exclusivity been successfully challenged. As populations grew, built environments afforded travel and facilitated commerce. The need for standards in architectural design became apparent as built environments became interconnected. Architects needed to consider the preferences and capabilities of those who would access built environments. In more recent times, users of built environments were living longer and, therefore, functioning with less mobility and stamina. Notions of democracy and community were transforming views of belonging and participation. During the 1960s, social movements that began in Europe around such concepts as normalization, deinstitutionalization, and communitization were beginning to have a profound impact upon those who would advocate for the disabled in the United States. Thus, the needs of people who would potentially access the built environment were beginning to be understood as complex and diverse.


Universal Design in Architecture

The passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 essentially outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability. So far-reaching was this piece of federal legislation that it took nearly three years for a beleaguered Congress to write the regulations that would ostensibly remove architectural barriers from all publicly supported buildings and properties. During this era, universal design in architecture was born. Like the dream of building inclusive communities for all to enjoy equally, universal design is an ideal with a process to ensure maximum participation for all. The challenge of removing physical barriers and retrofitting solutions to barriers proved to be a costly and cumbersome process, often yielding unsatisfactory results. Universal design sought to embed solutions into features at the design level—features that would benefit all, not merely accommodate the few. Curb cuts intended for wheelchair users, for example, were also found to be helpful for users of baby strollers, shopping carts, skateboardes, among others.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extended the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability to the private sector, requiring all entities doing business with the public to make every reasonable accommodation in providing access. Accessibility standards, while necessary for guidance and compliance monitoring, can appear onerous or threatening in light of the fact that they are government regulations, particularly when coupled with the public's misperceptions regarding disability. Universal design, as envisioned by Ron Mace and his colleagues at North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design, was intended to promote the design of products and environments that would appeal to all. North Carolina State's Principles of Universal Design are listed below in brief form (without associated guidelines).

"PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

PRINCIPLE THREE: 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.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility."

Principles of Universal Design, version 2.0 (Center for Universal Design, North Carolina, 1997).

Application of these principles has established a framework for developing design standards in architecture, as well as for creating consumer products, that permit the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest possible range of individuals. Today, millions of Americans with disabilities enjoy access to buildings, restaurants, movie theatres, sporting events, transit properties, walkways, commercial vehicles, and bank teller machines?to name only a few venues that were once inaccessible to them. Wheelchair users, once limited to home instruction or restricted to special school buildings, now attend their neighborhood schools alongside their non-disabled agemates.

However, although physical access to classrooms and other education facilities is an important first step toward educational equity for the disabled, it is not sufficient to ensure that all students with disabilities have equal access to the general curriculum or enjoy comparable opportunity to derive benefit from what school curriculum has to offer. Additional changes in the classroom environment and in the curriculum itself are also required in order for full equity to be achieved.


Universal Design in Education

Universal design in architecture recognized the importance of building environments that were more in line with the needs of an aging population and the requirements of those persons with disabilities who were being welcomed into the general community during the 1970s. In the 1980s, attention was brought to bear on the rapidly increasing diversity of America's students through the publication of A Nation At Risk, a report presented to the U.S. Department of Education by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. According to this report, our nation's schools—particularly in urban centers—appeared ill-equipped to prepare a diverse population to compete successfully in an increasingly global economy. The findings of the Commission spurred a wave of reform initiatives with enabling legislation aimed at raising standards and outcomes for our nation's most under-served students. More recent federal legislation, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2001) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997; 2004), seeks to build one education for all students, improve teacher quality, align curriculum with standards, measure outcomes at multiple points, and hold schools accountable for student performance. For no child to be excluded from—or left behind by—the general curriculum, the curriculum itself must be examined and re-designed from a fresh perspective, much in the same way that buildings, environments, and products were critically examined by the original advocates of universal design in architecture resulting in important and lasting changes in building standards.

Colleagues at the University of Connecticut's National Center on Postsecondary Education and Disabilities have developed a set of principles building upon and extending the principles originated at North Carolina State's Center for Universal Design. Note that their educational design principles are essentially the same as those outlined by North Carolina State for architectural and product design (with the addition of principles 8 and 9?community of learners; instructional climate). Their new principles address more educational constructivist perspectives regarding communities of learners and a climate of high expectations and social interaction. Together, these principles set a framework for what Scott, McGuire, and Shaw (2001) call Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). Application of these principles allows postsecondary institutions in particular to dramatically widen the accessibility of course offerings by designing accommodations into course structures rather than retrofitting a series of educational work-arounds to try and meet the specialized needs of individual students after course materials have been prepared. UDI principles are listed and defined in Appendix B.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Calls for critically examining curriculum from a universal design perspective have come from many quarters (King-Sears, 2001; Hitchcock, 2001; Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000; Pugach & Warger, 2001; Rose & Meyer, 2002; Turnbull, et al., 2002; Wehmeyer, et al., 2002). The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as put forth by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST, Inc.) were first presented in an Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Topical Brief (Orkwis & McLane, 1998). Currently, typically taught curriculum in schools is a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum, best exemplified by the ubiquitous textbook. It generally lacks flexibility in how it presents information to students, how it permits students to respond, and how it engages students in the learning process. In order for typical textbooks and other curriculum materials to become accessible to many disabled students, they must undergo numerous time-consuming transformations and interpretations, to the extent that the student's participation in classroom activities is often fragmented or delayed.

Several projects supporting universal design and access approaches to the general curriculum were reviewed in Research Connections (Danielson, 1999), a bi-annual review of OSEP-sponsored research on topics in special education. Prominently featured were projects underway at CAST to create a universally designed early literacy curriculum (Scholastic's WiggleWorks) and a universally designed document processor (CAST's eReader). Also featured in the review was a framework advanced by the University of Oregon's National Center for Improving the Tools of Education (NCITE) for designing the 'architecture' of effective instructional practices (Kaméenui & Simmons, 1999). (Their design principles for lesson adaptations are available as Appendix C.)

CAST's work is important because it demonstrates how flexible and malleable curriculum can be with the use of digital media and digital technology tools following a UDL framework. The NCITE's work on the architecture of instruction is important because it draws upon the current knowledge base regarding effective instructional practices and illustrates how instruction can be tailored to learners depending on the degree of explicitness required.

Over the years, many proposals have emerged to counter the old factory model approach to mass education begun in the 19th century with graded education. Approaches to individualized, personalized, or otherwise differentiated instruction have made enormous contributions to thinking about teaching and learning processes. What might distinguish UDL from other efforts to improve instruction in general—or other perspectives on universal design in particular—is that UDL establishes a framework for curricular reform in education (Rose & Meyer, 2002) yet also recognizes the need to maintain a balance between curriculum and instructional practice (Hitchcock, 2001). Moreover, a UDL framework provides a perspective for collaborative teams of special and general education personnel to provide access to the general curriculum while addressing disability-specific needs in multi-level or inclusive classroom situations (Jackson & Harper, 2002).

While UDL anticipates the coming digital curriculum with its inherent potential for flexibility and built-in options, it is not wholly reliant upon technology. UDL can ensure accessibility with new media and technology tools, but it depends upon the application of evidenced-based teaching practices to yield desired results (Hitchcock, 2002). To achieve these results, a UDL framework relies upon three guiding principles—multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement—for the development of flexible teaching approaches and curriculum resources. These principles emanate from analyzation of available research on the brain and new conceptualizations of how neuroscience informs our appreciation of learning and knowing (Rose & Meyer, 2000). Areas in the brain that contribute to learning can be grouped roughly into three interconnected networks, each with a fundamental role in learning: (a) "recognition" networks, specialized to receive and analyze information (the "what" of learning); (b) "strategic" networks, specialized to plan and execute actions (the "how" of learning); and (c) "affective" networks, specialized to evaluate and set priorities (the "why" of learning) (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

New insights into neurological systems working within these three regions of the brain connected with learning has led to the formulation of the three guiding principles of UDL:

1. To support diverse recognition networks, provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation. For example, when introducing students to a new concept or unit, a teacher may provide multiple structures to present that information, such as a lecture, a digitized text, an activity-based exploration, a demonstration.


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Last Updated: 11/05/2010

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