Universal Design for Learning: Accessible Education for All

Though the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was around long before COVID barreled into our lives, distance learning is shining a giant spotlight on the need for equitable, accessible education. As most of us know by now, accessing virtual education is particularly difficult for our children with disabilities and learning differences who struggle to connect in meaningful ways with their curriculum. As a result, they can end up spending significantly more time in one-to-one sessions with teachers or aides, increasing exhaustion and frustration, and in spite of all the extra time, still risk falling behind. 
The general idea behind UDL — which was originally developed by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology in collaboration with Harvard University — is that because every student learns differently, accessibility should be designed into lesson plans so that every student can understand and benefit from the same curriculum, which is especially crucial in the distance-learning environment.

The words "Universal Design for Learning = Learning Opportunities for All" in blue letters on a white background with several raised hands at the bottom of the image as if they are asking questions

To understand UDL a bit more, we talked with Dr. Mary Falvey, professor emerita of special education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), a former dean of CSULA’s Charter College of Education, and a national authority on inclusive education for students with and without disabilities. 
What is UDL? 

  • Instead of designing a lesson plan for the majority of students in the class and then modifying it later for those who need it, UDL creates a lesson plan that includes considerations for everyone. Dr. Falvey explains that UDL builds procedures into the lesson plan that accommodate multiple learners — it’s a forethought, not an afterthought. “UDL recognizes that people learn in different ways, and that we need to meet students where they’re at rather than force them to do things in ways that are harder for them.” 
  • UDL is designed for students with learning differences, but it helps everyone. “People think it’s more complicated than it needs to be,” Dr. Falvey says. “When I was growing up there were no curb cuts in sidewalks, so when I rode my bike I often would pop a tire. When we recognized we needed curb cuts for people who use wheelchairs and they were added to curbs, we realized it was a good thing for everyone (people who push strollers, ride bicycles, skateboard, and more). The same goes for UDL: When we create an environment that’s more accessible to more people, the environment becomes more alive.” 
  • Dr. Falvey says that instruction should be varied from day to day so that kids who might have been struggling with linguistics have an opportunity to learn visually, and vice versa. This helps the students who need it without calling them out individually. 

Can you give some examples? 

  • Some kids are visual learners and need a lot of images; other kids need more auditory information (such as saying the same thing in different ways). Extra visuals won’t bother most kids, but really help those who need them. “This way, students get a chance to hear things in the way they are actually going to learn it,” Dr. Falvey explains. She adds that kids should also be offered multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge; for example, if a traditional book report might not work for some kids, they could draw a picture or do a pantomime to demonstrate that they learned about the subject. “Students should be able to learn and demonstrate their learning in ways that work for them.”
  • Dr. Falvey once observed a class where a few special education students were included in a general education class. The student teacher had taken a chapter of a book and made a graphic organizer to help the special education students focus on the most relevant information. After she handed it out to the special education students, the other kids were looking over their shoulders saying, “I want that too!” As Dr. Falvey says, “if the point of teaching is for kids to actually learn things, we should give them as many tools as possible.”

How are teachers being trained to use UDL? How can parents advocate for it to be used with our kids?

  • More and more teachers have learned how to use UDL and are incorporating it into their lesson planning. Dr. Falvey tells us that the new standards for elementary, secondary, and special education teachers incorporate UDL. “They’ll all be learning about UDL and how to use it effectively to make sure the curriculum is accessible to all students.” Although the pandemic threw a wrench in just about everything, Dr. Falvey says we should start seeing those programs coming soon: “In the next year or two, an overwhelming majority of training programs will be using it.” Teachers can also go to their principal and ask for staff development on UDL. 
  • Parents can ask for UDL under the accommodations section of an IEP: “You can ask for UDL to be used in the classroom, and you can ask for teachers to be trained in UDL; parents can ask for training on anything their child might need to access their education in their IEP.” 

Does your child’s teacher use UDL? If so, we would love to know how it’s been working! If not, are you considering talking to your child’s school about incorporating it? 

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