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Universal Design
Research Connections
Fall 1999

Universal Design In Action

Universal Access Principles for Designing Curriculum

Big Ideas: Concepts, principles, or heuristics that facilitate the most efficient and broad acquisition of knowledge.

Conspicuous Strategies: Useful steps for accomplishing a goal or task.

Mediated Scaffolding: Instructional guidance provided by teachers, peers, materials, or tasks.

Strategies Integration: Integrating knowledge as a means of promoting higher-level cognition.

Judicious Review: Structured opportunities to recall or apply previously taught information.

Primed Background Knowledge: Preexisting information that affects new learning.

"The framework, which is designed for all students, including those with special needs, provides guidance for selecting quality materials that integrate effective instructional design principles." 

Catherine Barkett
Administrator of Curriculum
Frameworks and Instructional Resources,
California Department of Education.

With OSEP support, two groups— Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE) at the University of Oregon— been instrumental in applying the concept of universal design to cognitive issues. Other groups, such as the University of Kentucky, have continued to explore how technology tools can be designed for universal access. Here are their stories.

Building in Access Right From the Start

"Current textbook materials and teaching practices typically fail to effectively provide support that can be individualized for students who need help," explains Bart Pisha of CAST. With OSEP funding, Pisha and his colleagues are using universal design principles to develop and research a software tool and instructional approach that will improve cognitive access for students with special needs to the general education curriculum.

A focus of the project is refining the CAST-developed ULTimate Reader (Universal Learning Technology, www.cast.org). This software uses an electronic version of the textbook or materials that the teacher is already using, and provides a rich variety of highly flexible reading supports such as adding spoken voice and visual highlighting to the electronic text. It is designed to support students as they learn about social studies from textbooks and the World Wide Web. This support is scaffolded— is, it is gradually reduced as students develop more independence in the curriculum.

Pisha and his colleagues also are creating features for the ULTimate Reader that will support students as they identify patterns in text, develop effective strategies, and learn to sustain motivation and effort. They are creating text layouts that are clearer and easier to understand. "We have tried to integrate into the software strategies that make the content patterns more evident, build in strategies for comprehension, and make the presentation of information less intimidating and more engaging," Pisha describes. Among the many accommodations are highlighting words, phrases, and paragraphs to help readers focus on text; controlling speed of presentation; changing size of text; offering advanced organizers; providing definitions; allowing text to be read out loud; and changing the gender of the voice.

Wakefield, MA Goes Digital

Pisha and his colleagues are working with students and teachers at Wakefield High School in Massachusetts. Pisha chose a social studies text that was difficult for students with limited reading skills. With the blessing of the publisher, the text was digitized and loaded into the ULTimate Reader program. From there Pisha and his colleagues began studying how students interacted with the new features.

The goal is to develop and test the new features of the ULTimate Reader software with consumer input. "It is important to get input from potential users during development so that we can make the technology more usable and better address student needs."

One of the resource room teachers who are providing consumer input is Terry Fuller. "It really changes the way that students learn material," Fuller tells us. For example, the technology changes the traditional practice of having students answer questions at the end of the chapter. With the text in digital form, students can simply drag and drop whole paragraphs for use in their answers. Or, they can access definitions by hitting a key. Fuller says this raises issues about how teachers teach. "As teachers, this challenges us to have students go beyond tasks that can be mechanically handled by the computer and engage them in more higher level thinking activities."

Although it is too early in the development process to ascertain student outcome results, teachers and students alike give the universally designed approach high marks. For one, Fuller sees the effort as supporting Massachusetts State learning standards. For example, students who cannot read the book can gain the information, and students who cannot write legibly can communicate.

Implementing Universally Designed Technology in the Classroom

Pisha and his colleagues also have studied what it takes to get universally designed technology into classrooms. With OSEP funding, they recently undertook a study of how teachers integrated Wiggleworks— early literacy software program that has many universally designed features.

Here are several tips:

  • Teachers' technology skills must be relatively well developed and supported with ongoing opportunities for learning.

  • There must be a clearly defined, but flexible curriculum in place.

  • In-house staff must be available to keep computers functioning.

  • The software and instructional materials must be compatible with both the curriculum and with the range of existing student needs.

  • Staffing must be available to provide instructional supervision to the students working on the computers.

  • Teachers must be provided with adequate time and access to resources to prepare new or modified materials.

In addition, Joanne Collins Russell, principal at Jackson-Mann Elementary School where Pisha conducted his study, points out that the principal's role is key. "Because we are talking about an innovation that is applicable to all students and all teachers, there must be commitment by the principal." Russell encourages principals to allot time for the staff to think through what universal design means in relation to children, but also in relation to teaching.

Ensuring Universal Access to the Curriculum

"Simply providing physical access to general education does not ensure that students with disabilities will gain cognitive access to the content of the curriculum," stresses Ed Kame'enui, researcher at the University of Oregon. "To gain cognitive access to the general education content, attention must be given to the architectural requirements of that content."

For Kame'enui and his colleagues at NCITE, there are 6 principles that should form the foundation for effective curriculum design (see sidebar). "These principles provide teachers with a blueprint for designing and developing cognitive supports to ensure universal access to the curriculum," Kame'enui points out.

According to Doug Carnine, director of NCITE, few commercially available curricular programs are designed carefully or systematically enough to enable students with disabilities to realize their potential or achieve acceptable levels of performance in the general education curriculum without extensive effort on the part of the teacher. "The principles advocated by NCITE offer a starting point to assist general educators in their efforts to provide cognitive access to all students." Both Carnine and Kame'enui believe that knowledge of these design principles will help teachers evaluate the adequacy of the architecture of instructional materials prior to adoption, and will be used to modify curricular and instructional materials.

The mission of NCITE is to assist publishers in developing high quality tools and to assist the marketplace in demanding high quality tools. As part of his NCITE responsibilities, Carnine advocates for publishers to recognize and address these principles in programs prior to publication. One advocacy strategy is to influence state policy-makers to include universal access in their adoption decisions. "States have great influence over what is published— textbooks— of their purchasing authority," Carnine explains. California is an excellent example of how state policies can help institutionalize universal access.

The California Reading Initiative

In 1996, the California Reading Initiative began a major restructuring of how reading is taught in K-12 schools. This was a statewide attempt to disseminate and foster teaching practices drawn directly from research and resulted in a curriculum framework for reading and language arts in California. NCITE consulted with California educators as they developed their reading and language arts framework.

In 1999, the Special Education Literacy Task Force issued a report detailing how the initiative addressed issues germane to special education. Marion Joseph, California State Board of Education member and chair of the Task Force, said, "There are huge reforms in reading taking place— too often, children with disabilities have not been considered part of reforms. This is not the case in California." An important concept contained in the framework is the need to provide universal access for all learners. "Universal access provides a way to ensure that all students receive effective, research-based instruction in learning how to read," Joseph explained.

Kame'enui, one of the principal authors of the California framework, pointed out that it was important to embed universal access principles for designing beginning reading curriculum for diverse learners in the framework. "The content of this framework is designed to provide a road map for designers and developers of instructional materials. The entire framework will be used to develop specific criteria for the adoption of instructional materials. One such criterion is universal access, whereby materials are designed to maximize the learning of all students, including students in special education."

Designing Web Sites for Universal Access

The Internet may be the most significant educational technology of the twentieth century. The Internet is not only a reference resource, it also is a communications vehicle and multimedia presenter that enhances learning opportunities for students. So how can we ensure that web sites are designed for universal access?

Edward Blackhurst and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky are in the process of developing a prototype for a series of web-based tutorials on the IDEA 1997 Amendments and its regulations. "Early on, we were quite concerned with accessibility of web sites," Blackhurst explains. "We wanted to accommodate individuals who use screen readers that convert text to synthesized speech, those who require enlarged type, and those who are unable to access audio files." Subsequently, Blackhurst began exploring the barriers that individuals with such needs encounter when attempting to access information on the web.

Following are some of the design specifications that Blackhurst and his colleagues adopted to guide their development work to ensure universal accessibility of the web site.

  • Use high contrast backgrounds and text. Some individuals have difficulty reading screens that use certain color contrasts (e.g., red text on blue background) or that use inverse text. Black or blue text on white backgrounds generally works well.

  • Use Sans Serif fonts for text. Letters with serifs are difficult to read on screen and can create visual fatigue when large amounts of text are included on web sites. Examples of font families that tend to work well on web pages are Verdana, Arial, and Geneva.

  • Make liberal use of chunking. Large text passages on the screen can cause visual fatigue. Chunk text by making short paragraphs, using different levels of subheads, and placing bullets and block-indented paragraphs in strategic locations.

  • Avoid using italics. Italics are difficult to read on the screen. Use boldface in place of italics if emphasis is required.

  • Make use of alt tags when using graphics.Information in graphics cannot be read by screen readers unless special codes are used when placing graphic images such as photos or navigation buttons on web pages. Alt tags let you describe the graphic—.g., "A picture of the U.S. Senate Building," or "A right arrow. Click it to move to the next screen." An individual using a screen reader will be able to hear the description.

  • Avoid the use of frames. Many web sites contain two scrolling fields (called frames) next to each other (e.g., table of contents down the left side, narrative on the right side). Frames pose problems for individuals who use screen readers because the reader reads across the entire page, from left to right.

  • Include scripts when using audio files. Scripts that contain a textual narrative of the audio messages should be made available as an optional way to acquire the information.

Next: Views From The Field

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