Universal Design for Learning—Part 2

I continue with my praise and support for UDL in this entry. I’ll raise a few concerns next time out.

The point of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is that it is possible to design schools—both physically and in terms of classroom activities—in such a way that all (or at least more) students can participate fully in daily education. Further, by designing for inclusion of all (or at least more) students in mind, we can achieve the goal of improved inclusion at minimal cost.

Let’s start with a simple example. When classrooms are designed with easily moved and rearranged desks and tables, students with wheelchairs can participate more easily and fully. Similarly, entries can be constructed with ramps at minimal expense. Retro-fitting ramps on older schools is a good thing, and it should be funded, but it doesn’t fit under the rubric of UDL.

Some wonderful, easily accessible, tools that fit the UDL conception are built into computers. For example, for zero cost, the size and contrast of images on a computer screen can be adjusted to assist visually impaired students. (For Microsoft Windows users, go to the Control Panel and open the Ease of Access Center.) Built into your operating system are magnifiers to help illuminate and expand areas of the screen. There are tools to change the responsiveness of the mouse so that students with fine motor challenges can successfully navigate the screen. There are narrators, speech-to-text and text-to-speech engines. There are visual alternatives to system sounds. For zero cost to the student, the teacher or the school, we have improved accessibility to and via computer technology. These are UDL opportunities that any school with computer technology can and should mobilize.

Think of Stephen Hawking. He is physically unable to speak or to write by conventional means. Yet with assistive technology, an electronic voice is able to deliver Hawking’s speeches. He is able to use his cheek to move a pointing device to write scientific papers. Well-designed technology allows Hawking to participate in and contribute to academic physics. I doubt that anyone would suggest that the technology gives Hawking anything he hasn’t earned on his own. The thoughts are his; the prose is his. In another era, Stephen Hawking would have been voiceless.

Stephen Hawking

Thinking along these lines, it should be easy to think of improvements not only to the construction of schools, but in teachers’ day-to-day planning. It’s in the classroom planning that we have the room for the greatest innovation—and the greatest risk of making a hash of things. Again, today’s post is not about the peril, but the opportunity.

If it is true that some students have difficulty with spelling for deeper reasons than they haven’t yet learned, then dictionaries and spellcheckers are significant levelers of opportunity. Same with calculators for those students that have disability in working with numbers.

I’ll close here. The challenge for teachers is to plan in advance. How can you arrange your physical room, your instruction, your assignments, your assessment in advance so that barriers to success are removed before they are encountered. My next discussion on the topic will address learning in the classroom: how far dare we go in our quest to remove barriers?

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