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Universal Design
Research Connections
Fall 1999

Ensuring Access to the General EducationCurriculum

"As the developers of computer hardware and software recognize the benefit that can be derived from all individuals being able to use the same computer equipment and software applications, the concept of universal design in the development of new products becomes more accepted, and built-in access becomes more readily available."
Richard Riley
Secretary of Education

Universal design differs from  assistive technology, which is designed to meet highly individualized needs, in the following ways: 

*Assistive technology is specially considered for an individual student, whereas universally designed approaches may be used by a wide range of students with diverse learning needs.

*Assistive technology is used by a student to meet the expectations of a given curriculum, whereas universally designed approaches make the curriculum accessible to students with varying needs.

*Assistive technology generally is under the purview of special educators, whereas universally designed approaches are implemented by general education teachers.

The 1997 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) calls for providing the greatest possible access to the general education curriculum as a means for improving educational results for students with disabilities. However, as Nancy Safer, Executive Director of the Council for Exceptional Children stresses, "One size does not fit all."

Students with disabilities— physical, emotional, sensory, or cognitive— respond to the curriculum differently from other students. The foundation of curriculum access for all students is the design of educational materials, the primary tools used to teach curricular content.

Students may need accommodations made to the standard curricular materials. If they do not receive needed accommodations, their access to essential aspects of the curriculum may be blocked. To meet the goal of access to the curriculum for everyone, teachers must adjust the materials and their presentation to break down barriers and assist these students in learning. Ideally, a curriculum should be able to be modified or customized to meet the needs of both teacher and student. Unfortunately, teachers who have to work with standard, off-the-shelf curricular materials usually have little time to develop accommodations for their classes.

"As general education classrooms become more inclusive, strategies for providing access to the general education curriculum are needed so that students with disabilities are actively involved and progress within the curriculum in these classrooms. OSEP is committed to identifying effective strategies that support student access," points out Lou Danielson, director of the Research to Practice Division, in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

The research base on best approaches to providing curriculum access is in its infancy, but with OSEP support, useful findings are beginning to emerge. Universal design is one practice that shows promise for increasing access to the general education curriculum.

Defining Universal Design

The concept of universal design originated in architectural studies where considerations of physical access for individuals with sensorimotor disabilities led to designs that incorporated assistive technologies and adaptations. The more common examples are curb cuts, ramps, and automatic doors. When universal design principles are applied to physical space layout, accommodations are built-in rather than added as an afterthought.

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials— are not added on after-the-fact.

While technology is not a requirement of universal design, it makes the creation and use of universally designed curricula much faster and easier. It allows teachers to adapt the curriculum more easily to meet a wide range of student needs.

Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort in special education to promote curricular materials with built-in adaptations— in digital media— are flexible and customizable. According to Skip Stahl, Director of Professional Development at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), curricula should be designed to incorporate the prerequisites of learning: Information must be accessible,support for the development of skills must be available, and the learner must perceive the learning to be important. These prerequisites should be built into curriculum in the following ways:

  • Provide multiple representations of the information being presented.
  • Provide multiple or modifiable means of expression and control.
  • Provide multiple or modifiable means of motivating and engaging students.
The widespread availability of digital materials and sophisticated, rapid computer networks has made integrating these principles into curricular formats possible. Since everyone in the class is using the same materials, universal design avoids the stigma to which students with disabilities may be subjected if they use materials that differ from those used by the other students.

Wiggleworks, an early literacy program from Scholastic, offers an illustration of how these design features are utilized (for more information, visit the Scholastic web site at: http://www.scholastic.com/wiggleworks/index.htm. Students read stories and respond to activities in the reading program. All of the text can be enlarged, changed in color or highlighted, or read aloud by the computer. Children can navigate the software's learning activities via mouse or keyboard. A single switch can turn on a built-in scanning feature. Wiggleworks activities also offer a variety of options for expression, such as writing, drawing, and recording. When in "Write," students can begin a composition by typing text, by recording themselves speaking or drawing, or by placing words from a word list into their text.

Next: Universal Design in Action

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