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Curriculum Access and Universal Design for Learning
Author: Raymond Orkwis
What is Curriculum Access?
Under the 1997 IDEA reauthorization, all students, regardless of their abilities, must be given the opportunity to become involved with and progress in the general education curriculum. Every student must have access to what is being taught. Providing access, however, involves much more than supplying every student with a textbook or a computer. Teachers must ensure that students are actively engaged in learning; that is, the subject matter is cognitively challenging them, regardless of their developmental level.
Students with disabilities can be blocked from this interaction because of an inflexible text that may inadvertently create physical, sensory, affective, or cognitive barriers. Even though they may have the same tools as everyone else, they do not truly have equal access to the curriculum. But there are several strategies educators can employ to give these students access, including using a curriculum that has been universally designed for accessibility.
What is Universal Design for Learning?
To accommodate students' individual needs and to give them the opportunity to progress in content areas, educators traditionally have adapted or altered the textbook or tests. Typical accommodations are Braille or recorded texts for visually impaired students, captioned materials for hearing-impaired students, and customized supplementary materials or alternative texts that address cognitive disabilities. In most classrooms, these accommodations are added to the standardized curriculum much as a wheelchair ramp is added to a building where stairs formerly provided the only access.
Just as after-the-fact architectural accommodations are often awkward and expensive, after-the-fact curriculum adaptations can be time consuming to design and difficult to implement in classrooms of diverse learners. A more efficient way to provide student access is to consider the range of user abilities at the design stage of the curriculum and incorporate accommodations at that point. This "built-in" access for a wide range of users, those with and without disabilities, is the underlying principle in universal design.
In terms of curriculum, universal design implies a design of instructional materials and activities that allows learning goals to be attainable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Such a flexible, yet challenging, curriculum gives teachers the ability to provide each student access to the subject area without having to adapt the curriculum repeatedly to meet special needs.
The essential features of universal design for learning have been formulated by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) into three principles:
How is Universal Design for Learning Being Implemented?
Teachers who want to begin implementing universal design must begin by using curricular materials that are flexible. Although digital materials are not the only way to deliver a universally designed curriculum, they allow the greatest flexibility in presentation. They can be easily customized to accommodate a wide range of student abilities, but the teacher and the students must know how to use them. The mere presence of good software programs in the classroom does not guarantee that they will provide needed access.
The access provided by universal design for instructional materials does not mean that students are accommodated by lowering the standards, finding "the least common denominator," or otherwise "dumbing down" the curriculum. In fact, the curriculum must remain at a sufficient level of difficulty if students are to progress in it. For example, a software program for beginning readers can have different settings for the speed at which the information is presented and highlighted (multiple representations). It can be controlled with vocal commands, single switch controls, or alternate keyboards (multiple expressions). It can request different levels of feedback from students, from having them repeat the sounds of letters and words to creating their own stories using the vocabulary words they've learned (multiple engagements). These accommodations allow the necessary flexibility for student access and the necessary challenge for learning.
Is There Support for a Universal Design Curriculum?
Many teachers are already working in environments with varying degrees of inclusiveness, effectively teaching students with and without disabilities in the same classroom. Many general and special educators now collaborate on curriculum and prepare adaptations for special needs in their classes. These teachers have already taken the first step toward implementing universal design goals in their classrooms.
As the demographics of classrooms continue to change and there is more need for adapted materials, curriculum developers, particularly those who produce instructional software, are considering the advantages of universal design. With the federal government and states pushing for schools to incorporate more technology-based teaching tools in the classroom, understanding the foundations of universal design for curriculum access can help guide teachers into implementation.
How Can I Find Out More About Universal Design for Learning?
Several groups are working on universal design issues as they relate to curriculum access:
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