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We are only beginning to understand the potential of universal design for helping students with disabilities to access the general education curriculum. Following are perspectives from the field.
A District Takes on Universal Design The Concord School District in New Hampshire, which collaborated with CAST in these activities, has embarked on a long-term project to infuse technology into classroom practice. One of the models that educators are using to plan for students with disabilities is universal design. Concord's goal of universal access is centered on using technology to make the curriculum accessible to all students. To reach this goal, the district provides adaptations of print materials, integrates technology that is universally designed, and supports teachers in adapting the curriculum with these technologies. According to Concord School District Special Education Coordinator Donna Palley, "Through the universal design project, special needs students will have tools to enhance their communication skills and participate in the general education curriculum."
Providing this level of access requires Concord to convert all of its curriculum materials to digitized form. Electronic access to the materials is the most important pre-requisite to using technology and universally designed curriculum. Palley tells us that "Curriculum materials that are digitized and available on the computer can be manipulated to meet a variety of learning needs." For example, with digitized materials, students who need help can get it by:
- Enlarging the size of the text.
- Changing the font or color of the text.
- Using a switch and computer to access a text.
Currently, the district has approximately one dozen scanners of which is high speed with a cadre of volunteers who help out with the scanning of printed materials and texts into digital format. Once the text is available in digital format, the material is stored on Concord's server, ready to be downloaded anywhere in the school district.
Access For What?
Materials are only as good as the pedagogy on which they are based and the way they are used by teachers and students. "Applying the principles of universal design to the development of curricular options for all students is one of the most promising and exciting movements on today's educational scene," reports John Langone, professor of special education at the University of Georgia and the 1998-1999 president of the Technology and Media Division of CEC. "Any pitfalls of universal design are not a function of universal design, per se, but may be a function of where we as educators place our emphasis in developing curriculum."
For Langone, problems often arise when, in our enthusiasm to implement a new tool or materials, we inadvertently overlook the need to identify what is important for students with special needs to learn. "We need to look at the content of what students are learning and decide if, in fact, it is worth learning."
For example, Langone points out that many instructional tools fall short of helping students to develop knowledge and learn skills that will lead to their becoming independent workers and enjoying a high quality of life. "Many of the materials available today suffer from the same problems inherent in most textbooks, that is, they are simply text based with some supporting images," Langone explains. "Universal design of poorly conceived materials is not going to result in better outcomes for youngsters."
According to Langone, educators should conceptualize and develop curricula rich in functional information, and then look to universal design principles when presenting it. "This information would be presented in multiple formats to allow students many forms of expression, and to encourage student engagement with materials in a variety of ways." Key features that are helpful to a large range of students with differing abilities include:
- Providing text in digital forms.
- Including captions for all graphic representations and images.
- Using powerful video anchors that include descriptions of what is being viewed.
- Building adaptations that assist learners in identifying the important information.