Universal Design for Learning and the accessible classroom

Accessibility and inclusivity have long been lacking in the education system. Traditionally, students with diverse learning needs, primarily students with disabilities, have been forced to fit the rigidity of the system, even as it hindered their abilities. Of late, the Universal Design for Learning method (referred to as UDL throughout this article) has gained traction, challenging the ways in which institutions have accommodated students with disabilities since mainstreaming inclusion. Offering an alternative to such accommodations -- such as additional time on exams, -- UDL adjusts learning material to fit the individual needs of students instead of vice versa. It highlights the why, what and how of learning, providing multiple means of engagement, representation and expression. 

The shift from traditional accommodations to UDL represents the shift from the medical model of disability to the social model. Instead of following the medical model and modifying materials for students with disabilities when it's needed, UDL principles implore teachers to anticipate a variety of student needs at the beginning of the lessons (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). Simplified, it's about avoiding students with disabilities having to go to the material -- having to be in an uncomfortable learning environment and adjust their needs to fit the system (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). 

The development of UDL has been prioritized by many in light of widespread and continuous struggles by students with disabilities. Recent studies have shown that 34 percent of students with disabilities in postsecondary education graduate with a four-year degree within eight years, which some attribute to the lack of support or flexibility within higher education (NCD, 2015). And while the number of students with disabilities attending college is increasing, there isn't much increase in how many obtain a college degree, with studies finding that students with disabilities have double the risk for academic dropout (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). However, UDL directly addresses the most prominent areas which have kept many students with disabilities from success. For instance, the traditional approach to accommodations requires students to self-identify as having a disability to faculty members, provide the required documentation of their disability to the campus disability resource office, request the accommodations and then wait for the adjustments to be implemented (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). 

In recent years, the UDL technique has made its way into legislation and other policymaking decisions. At universities like Syracuse University and Georgetown University, it is in the process of being mainstreamed as part of decisions to support accessibility consistently instead of adapting when specific accessibility needs arrive (Georgetown University; SU News). Studies suggest that 11 percent of undergraduate students have some type of disability, but that between 60 and 80 percent don't report to the campus disability resource office to receive official accommodations (Georgetown University). Right now, UDL is the best way to address this disparity because it encourages and fosters conversations between students and their instructors and in doing so creates a consistent system to accommodate students (Basham, 2020).

While implementing UDL policies, schools are able to help instructors share the same focus and anticipate, reduce and eliminate unneeded barriers by ensuring goals, methods, materials and assessments are accessible and flexible (Basham, 2020). Basham (2020) notes that the UDL principles can fit in with any mode of instruction, whether in-person, online or hybrid.  The technique addresses findings that many faculty members often feel uncomfortable with the needs of students with disabilities because they feel unprepared to meet them (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). This is mainly because in the traditional model of Education, faculty members don't need experience in curriculum design (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). And as a result, faculty members have been skeptical about whether it is fair to provide students with disabilities with reasonable accommodations (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). And for students with learning -- invisible -- disabilities, this is especially true (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). In higher education, invisible disabilities and those of a psychological nature -- like ADHD -- to be the most common type of disability, but this is associated with a willingness to fit into the higher education system (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). It becomes a fear of not appearing “normal” compared with their peers (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). When considered dually, it points to an urgent need to design effective methods of instruction that ensure equal access to education for all students who struggle to succeed in the traditional model of Education (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). 

In influencing some policy initiatives, some UDL advocates have recognized the traditional system as problematic, arguing that accommodations have roots in the medical, individual level, which views disability as an individual problem in need of correction (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). In line with this and its growing popularity, UDL was included in the US Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, defined as “a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practices that a) provide flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills and the in the ways students are engaged, and b) reduce barriers in instruction, provide appropriate accommodations, support and challenges and maintain high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who have limited English proficiency” (McMahon, 2019). In doing so, it expands the engagement, representation and expression initiatives into three groups apiece: access, development and internalization (McMahon, 2019). 

Later acts involving UDL, notably the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, have had similar motives and language (UDL, 2020). The ESSA, which represents updated policies from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and has replaced the No Child Left Behind law, references UDL (UDL, 2020). This policy encourages states to design assessments using UDL principles and to award grants to education agencies that use UDL and technology that aligns with UDL (Berg, 2016). In using the definition of UDL from the Higher Education Act of 2008, the ESSA provided an extensive plan to incorporate the technique (Berg, 2016). The Act called on states to use UDL to implement “high-quality student academic assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts and science” (Berg, 2016). It elaborated and said that for students with disabilities, states may provide alternate assignments and standards, but should be innovative in doing so to create a system that will “be accessible to all students” (Berg, 2016). For all of its recommendations, the ESSA calls on states to use funds to invest in UDL and deliver content to meet the needs of all students, notably those with disabilities (Berg, 2016). 

In many ways, the ESSA paved the way for UDL to be included in future policies. The same year, UDL was part of the US ED Ed Tech Developer's Guide, which is aimed at developers, startups and entrepreneurs (Berg, 2016). Issued by the US Department of Education’s Office of Technology, the guide encouraged software designers and developers to “create impactful tools for teachers, school leaders, students and their families” (Berg, 2016). It goes into detail about UDL principles and how the tech industry could employ the technique to become more inclusive and should consider it while creating learning tools and environments (Berg, 2016). And then a year later, UDL made its way into the National Education Technology Plan, which emphasized the technique as a method of personalized learning based on the numerous options provided by technology (Berg, 2016). It becomes about using technology to strategically, effectively and meaningfully support students in diverse ways (Berg, 2016). “Educational stakeholders should develop a born accessible standard of learning resource design to help educators select and evaluate learning resources for accessibility and equity of learning experience,” the National Education Technology Plan says (Berg, 2016). Specifically mentioning UDL, it elaborates and says that the research of UD should be the accepted framework and language around accessible design (Berg, 2016). 

Through this, UDL provides a way to strategically design curricula that articulates a method of teaching for learning based on plans to support students with diverse learning needs (McMahon, 2019). And in many ways, its goal driven, student-centered approach leads to proactive and iterative design cycles, Basham (2020) notes. Each aspect includes evidence-based educational practices, targeted assessments, data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement contextualized across the learning environment (Basham, 2020). There's plenty of evidence showing that UDL improves academic outcomes, particularly for students with learning disabilities -- proving the premise that learning barriers occur as a result of tension among learners’ strengths, challenges and preferences (Basham, 2020). When properly implemented, UDL does not use its three principles and nine guidelines as its beginning and end but instead uses them to find ways for learners to access the content, build understanding of knowledge and skills and internalize the behaviors associated with expert learning (Basham,  2020). 

Providing students with disabilities with opportunities to master content is the key goal of UDL, and there are set ways to achieve this. Students with disabilities often say that the assumption that they -- especially in college -- are able to physically and psychologically organize course content is detrimental to their success (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). Frenrich (2018) notes that students report learning best in courses where the instructor clearly structured the content and some fail courses without the structure. An effective way to accomplish this is through a PowerPoint, which students say is the easiest path to learn from (Frenrich, 2018). PowerPoints tend to provide more options for accessibility and inclusive learning techniques because one can follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to ensure that students with disabilities can familiarize themselves with the content (Frenrich, 2018). The PowerPoint method allows students to absorb content in an organized way but also in many ways, like photos, diagrams and videos (Frenrich, 2018). Instead of having to read 200 pages, students can open a 20-slide presentation and get the main points of the readings (Frenrich, 2018).

PowerPoints are effective in a variety of environments and circumstances, but they may not be the best for all students. Griful-Freixenet (2017) notes that some may need more complex assistive technology to succeed. Students with disabilities -- whether physical, intellectual or developmental -- benefit from assistive technology as much as formal accommodations (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). Assistive technology has progressively been mainstreamed into a formal and essential accommodation. It helps, for example, students with visual impairments read graphs, drawings and Word documents (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). And it achieves the goal of normalizing accommodations UDL advocates sometimes envision because if an instructor adopts UDL and allows all students to have technology in class, then there would be one less thing astrocizing students with disabilities (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). 

Furthermore, as Rao (2016) notes, applying UDL throughout the entire class structure and specifically in assessments can be challenging. For instance, the education system is established in a way where teachers have to prepare students to take standardized tests that often don't use UDL (Rao, 2016). Because of this, instructors must be flexible in strategic ways, and it's important they identify the goals most associated with test-taking strategies and find ways for students to be most responsive to standardized testing formats (Rao, 2016). It's viral for students, teachers and parents to prepare in ways that will minimize stress in the long run (Rao, 2016). Teachers can accomplish this throughout the school year by setting goals and addressing the content itself and familiarizing students with the formats of the standardized tests (Rao, 2016). Though it is more restricted, the most effective support teachers can provide is based on UDL. The most notable UDL checkpoints say that instructors should alleviate some of the challenges students with disabilities face with standardized tests by providing clarification on the test language, highlighting the patterns students can expect on the tests, building fluency with the test format through language, minimizing distractions and threats by teaching test-taking strategies beforehand and facilitating personal coping skills by preparing students for exams (Rao, 2016). 

Some students are keenly aware of the discrepancies among accommodations available inside the classroom and accommodations deemed acceptable on standardized tests and nonetheless pursue UDL techniques on a daily basis and deal with standardized assessments as they occur. One student who preferred oral or multiple choice examinations explained her preference: “in an oral exam, if you forget a detail, the teacher helps you, but not in a written exam” (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). Another student mentioned that not all students with disabilities prefer the same type of exam. The student, who had muscular dystrophy, said that written exams are often frustrating because they had to focus on their muscles and therefore really struggled with focusing on the exam questions (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). Other students, who both had dyslexia, mentioned reading barriers and needed somebody to “read the options for me because if I read it alone, all the options seem the same to me” (Griful-Freixenet, 2017). 

UDL is not an attempt to erase disability, but instead embrace it to challenge and strengthen how the classroom operates. Each instructor that adopts UDL is expressing an additional concern for their students, specifically students with disabilities. It represents a deeper understanding of the historical oppression of people with disabilities and a desire to not only include but also invest in students with disabilities.


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