What Universal Design for Learning Looks Like: A Teacher's Perspective

Posted by Ann Neary on 4/5/19 9:46 AM

When people think of Universal Design they tend to think of those not-quite-ubiquitous-enough ramps built into sidewalks that permit access to folks with wheelchairs, walkers, and baby strollers. This idea was first pioneered by Selwyn Goldsmith, author of the 1963 text Designing for the Disabled: The New Paradigm. Architect Ronald Mace elevated Universal Design to the next level, coining the term to describe products and environments that serve people regardless of physical age, ability, or particular life circumstances. Universal Design is the reason millions of people, not just people living with arthritis, open their kitchen drawers to retrieve their handy OXO brand can-openers rather than one of the demoralizingly fickle old-school-style can openers.

I associate Universal Design with a more personal moment than rummaging through a kitchen drawer of metal flotsam. I think of the day my partner and I left the hospital with our newborn daughter. Teary-eyed, we signed documents with blanks titled “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” with Ann Neary and Olivia Ambrogio. Neither of us had to cross out the word “father” beside our name. In fact, we had chosen to drive to George Washington Hospital in Washington, DC, rather than Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD, for the birth of our daughter so that both of our names could be written on our daughter’s birth certificate, even though Holy Cross was significantly closer to our home. The barrier created by the heterocentric assumption that a child should have a mother and a father was eliminated by the local law and made real to us on that piece of paper.

From my perspective, and drawing from the first principle of my faith, Unitarian Universalism, at the heart of Universal Design is the moral tenant that no one should have to ask for a barrier to be removed so that they might participate alongside others in this world. I’m struck by the memory of a dear friend and world-known epidemiologist, who also experiences dyslexia, telling me that she left one PhD program because she was not allowed to take her exams orally. She transferred to another program with more inclusive practices and earned her advanced degree in two years. Without her research and the work of the labs she leads, would doctors know as much about antibiotic-resistant diseases in patients with HIV or controlling the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses? On a side-note, this scholar once exited a conference populated by ferociously sexist scientists via the only available vehicle: a horse. In summary, she doesn’t let barriers stand in the way of getting done what needs doing.

Universal Design in Schools

At Lowell, the school where I work as a learning specialist, we are coming up on our anniversary of implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in the Middle School. Recognizing barriers and creating alternatives that speak to the “brainforest” of neurodiversity in our community is important but slow-going work. Educators and students have to consider the implicit biases we might carry about what “everyone should be able to do.”

We can take simple steps, such as ensuring that all classroom and community handouts are in fourteen-point font with one-inch margins and simple, uncluttered graphics. This ends up being a more straightforward task for language arts teachers generating their own writing prompts and comprehension questions and a more daunting task for math teachers thumbing through stacks and stacks of pre-created handouts to find that just-right graphic to help students understand how to combine like terms.

Sometimes there are accessibility issues that are highly specific to a particular discipline.

Two of our math teachers, Sarah Fleischer and Josh Silver, have spent long hours at the photocopier, thinking about the size of graph paper that works best for students who struggle to line up algorithms and charts of mathematical information on blank paper, only to find some students report that they felt hampered when presented with boxes to organize numbers and operations.

Our music teacher, Mike Woods, once told me that all jazz sheet music is written in a font that is virtually indecipherable to readers with dyslexia. He had called a popular sheet music publisher to request music be printed in a more accessible font but was told that “all jazz music is printed in that font.” It warms the cockles of my heart to know that our teacher uses an online program to rewrite sheet music specifically for students affected by this issue.

The early development of UDL intersects with the rise of assistive technologies, and the outcome makes the use of technology normative for people in general.

Lowell’s one-to-one Chromebook initiative becomes all the more intentional when educators consider the wealth of simple tools that make a difference in a reader’s experience.  Teachers can ensure that readers have access to audio versions of text through apps such as Learning Ally, Tales2Go, or Google’s ReadWrite.

Our language arts teacher, Natalie Stapert, will prioritize reading aloud large sections of text in her class if a novel is not available through the digital app, Learning Ally. In some cases, our Middle School librarian, Melissa Hill, has purchased Kindle Fires specifically for students to use in conjunction with Audible because a text is not available on Learning Ally.

Educators can create lower barriers related to written tasks via Google Docs that give students the option of typing with the use a spellcheck app, or Grammarly. This proactive approach is more supportive for students than waiting for students with graphomotor issues or dyslexia to fail before offering up a word-processor option.

Coleman Rose, the Spanish teacher, researched and piloted the limited use of the online program, Actively Learn. The interactive library of curated articles and videos with embedded reading comprehension questions were so well received by his students that Becky Prochilo began using the program with her science students. When a student uses the Actively Learn platform they have to slow down and check for understanding by answering questions every so often, and they can use dictionary and annotation features.  The program not only benefits students with ADHD but promotes retention of new material for students who process more slowly or just have trouble focusing due to a poor night’s sleep.

And then there are reconsiderations of everyday tools and the environments we create.

We can, for example, ensure that everyone in class has access to a four-function calculator to check their computations, not just students with dyscalculia. And we can create class schedules that include multiple breaks in the day for physical activity, socializing, and nourishing snacks, benefiting everyone’s energy levels and emotional self-regulation, not just people with ADHD or ADD. 

The organization, CAST, which produces a comprehensive set of guidelines for UDL, posits that learners must be engaged on three cognitive fronts: engagement, representation, and action and expression.  We have to appeal to learners on an emotional level, stimulating their engagement through salient goals and some choice in topics. We have to research and present knowledge and concepts in multiple forms such as audio and print texts, film clips, simulations, games, expert speakers, and good-old-fashioned note-taking. We have to identify a number of ways students can express what they know, through written words and calculations, songs and raps, 3D sculptures, invented civilizations, performances, and public-speaking opportunities. Universal Design does not mean educators will offer all options at all times for engagement, representation, and expression. And UDL is not a replacement for the specific work of special-education services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, extensive behavioral supports, or intensive orthography interventions.

Benefits of UDL

There are breakthrough moments when it all pays off. Sometimes it’s because of one particular teacher in one particular subject, but often it’s about a self-empowered student taking the initiative to implement a number of strategies they have been taught.

One day I was heating up my lunch in the little kitchenette behind the librarian’s desk during a whole-school break. A Middle School boy swung open the door, seeking a quiet place for study. Nimbly, he opened his Chromebook and located a pdf of PowerPoint slides about the Holocaust that his social studies teacher had shared digitally in class. He copied the text from the pdf into a Google Doc and then used the extension app, ReadWrite, to have the text transformed into an audio text. He adjusted the rate of speed and volume of the audio and then toggled back to the pdf to view the images embedded in the PowerPoint slide.  In no time he had set up a review session for himself, expanding his depth of knowledge about the causes and effects of the Holocaust. The level of self-awareness, independence, and fluency with digital applications floored me. I wrote his parents an email that afternoon. These moments are all the more celebratory because we educators know we don’t always get it right.

Representative Shirley Chisholm advised disenfranchised people to bring a folding chair to ensure a seat at tables traditionally blocked by privilege. How many more ideas would creative, bright, and hard-working people have to share if they didn’t have to expend energy looking for that darn folding chair?                                 


Photo Credit: © Flynt | Dreamstime.com

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Ann Neary

Written by Ann Neary

Ann Neary is a learning specialist at Lowell School. She received her bachelor's degree from Oberlin College and her master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Annie joined Lowell's Middle School faculty in 2018.