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Universal Design for Learning Essay

The concept of Universal Design comes from architect, Ron Mace in 1980 when he used the term and defined the concept as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). Mace had personal experience as he used a wheelchair and understood the problems of accessibility to buildings. The concept of Universal Design has since been applied to other fields, including education. The belief of Universal Design is that environments and products should be designed, for maximum usability.

From the standpoint of curricular access, Universal Design means that curriculum and classrooms should be flexible so students with widely varying abilities can all access the general curriculum and can all achieve the established standards for all students. The principles of Universal Design in education include; 1) Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, 2) Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know, and 3) Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

(CAST) The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 require that students with disabilities have access to, and participate and progress in, the general education curriculum. These assurances went well beyond the previous federal requirements for physical access to the classroom setting. IDEA required and challenged educators to find ways to make the actual curriculum accessible, meaning that strategies and tools were required to bring the material to a wide variety of learning styles. The challenges were obvious as educational curricular is largely designed for students without disabilities.

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Teachers have long been adept at adjusting and flexing strategies to meet the needs of individual students, but IDEA required a degree of flexibility that individual teacher could not respond to without assistance. The range of students and disability in the classroom setting was simply too far reaching. The expectation for IDEA was that students would have full access, not just some assistance getting a cursory review of the information that other students were learning. The principles of Universal Design become increasingly more important as we acknowledge the competitiveness of the educational environment today.

Standards and assessments have become more stringent and students, teachers and parents are encouraged to take education seriously. The transition from elementary school to middle and on to high school can be difficult for many kids. For students with disabilities, while they may have been included in the regular classroom curriculum in grade school, the more challenging curriculum of the higher grades with multiple classrooms and teachers poses problems if the educational setting is not designed to help them learn and access information in he best possible way for them as individuals (Casper).

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) began applying Universal Design concepts to the curriculum materials and methods they developed. They understood the obvious, that having a single major learning option, textbooks, created barrier for some students who simply could not access the information in that way. Presenting information to students in a variety of different ways needed. Information could be presents by speech, video, audio in addition to text. Beyond assistive devices, CAST began to look at actual teaching strategies and methods of instruction that reach students with broad and varying learning styles.

The advances in technology have made universal design strategies much easier to implement. Teachers now regularly have access to computers, software, and assistive technology. Having a text book available in a digital format doesn’t generally pose a problem for the teacher but can make a vast difference for the student. The concept is however, broader than just technological strategies. There is also method of teaching instructing that can improve learning. Strategies were developed by Orkwis and McLane to provide teachers with clear ideas about implementing Universal Design in the classroom.

They suggested the following; providing all text in digital format, caption for all audio and video, give descriptions for images, and provide cognitive supports. Cognitive supports include summarizing, practicing and assessing students regularly (Orkwis & McLane, Suggested First Steps). Of course access does no always result in learning and one of the most important components in education is to assess the student’s achievement or comprehension of what has been taught.

With increased attention on standards and testing, it is more important than ever for teachers to have strategies and methods available to help disabled students keep up with the ever increasing face paced curriculum. IDEA requires school districts to provide access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. The ultimate goal is to improve learning, increase graduation rates, and do a better job of preparing students for college or employment. In 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law focuses, among other things, on accountability for results in education. The goal of No Child Left Behind is to ensure exactly as the name states, that no child will be left behind. For students with disabilities, this means that they must have access to education that assures they will reach the same high standards set for their peers. To reach this goal, schools must assure accurate assessments of students and then the development of good comprehensive Individual Education Plans (IEP).

Reassessment of the student’s achievement must be done regularly and accurately, as it is with non disabled students. Universal design is important in this aspect as the assessment processes used by schools, must be accessible and meaningful. Assessment used by education across the country must be designed form the beginning to be accessible to a wide range of students. Strategies for the future will further enhance the schools abilities to carry out the requirements of IDEA and No Child Left Behind.

The U. S. Department of Education, in an effort to support these efforts has begun to design guidelines for educational materials. For example, guidelines, called a national file format, for textbook publishers to convert printed materials into electronic files have been developed. Though not a federal requirement at this time, some states have already begun to require that new textbooks have this option. Universal Design concepts promise to improve learning and outcomes for all students. The concepts allow all students the same access to learning ad the same chance to succeed.


Bremer, C. D. , Clapper, A. T. , Hitchcock, C. , Hall, T. , & Kachgal, M. (2002). Universal design: A strategy to support students’ access to the general education curriculum. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. Retrieved March 23, 2005, from http://www. ncset. org/publications/viewdesc. asp? id=707 Casper, Beth and Leuchovius, Universal Design for Learning and the Transition to a more Challenging Academic Curriculum, Parent Brief, Promoting Effective Involvement in Secondary Education, April 2005

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