Level the Learning Field in Your Classroom: A Case for Universal Design
by Solvegi Shmulsky
Universal design is reshaping how we think about education and sparking innovation from grade school through college. Born in the field of architecture, universal design (UD) is the concept that environments should be engineered to be maximally accessible to all regardless of physical and cognitive ability.
Compelling for its simplicity and inclusive ethic, UD challenges teachers, professors and institutions to reach as many students as possible by accounting for their diverse needs up front. In a universally designed course, content is available in a variety of digital and traditional formats, the space is usable for those with different physical and sensory needs, and students can show their knowledge through a range of alternative assessments. By having options, students choose how to gain and use information in a manner that best suits them while still meeting course objectives.
Prior to the advent of UD, making accommodations for individual students within a traditional educational environment was the main approach in disability education. Accommodations remain a key practice; this approach, however, misses many students who would benefit but do not qualify for special services because they lack an official diagnosis. UD reaches more students by creating an environment that can meet diverse needs at the outset. Here is an example:
Example: Provide an audio book for a student with a documented visual impairment so that any learner can choose to listen to the reading via text-to-speech software
Example: Make a digital copy of text book available to all students in the class
Why is universal design important in education? There are a growing number of learners who need approaches like UD to succeed in school. Diagnosed ADHD, learning disabilities, and ASD have been increasing for 30 years. ADHD is diagnosed in about 8.5 percent of the school population; learning disabilities affect 5 percent of learners; and the rate of autism spectrum disorder recently increased from 1.5 to 2 percent.
The majority of students with ADHD, LD and ASD learn alongside their peers in regular classrooms across the country. The U.S. Department of Education reports that of all students with disabilities, 60 percent spend upwards of 80 percent of their time in a regular classroom. This means that most teachers must be versed in approaches that work for students with ADHD, LD and ASD—if they are to do their jobs effectively—and UD is one such approach.
At the postsecondary level, research suggests that relatively few students with disabilities use accommodations, thus an approach like UD is needed if they are to reach their potential. According to a large-scale longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education, 60 percent of students with disabilities enroll in a postsecondary institution within eight years of leaving high school. Of those, 28 percent identify as having a disability at their postsecondary institution and 19 percent receive accommodations. This suggests that hidden disabilities are commonplace at the college level. UD, which doesn’t require any students to self-identify as having a difference in order benefit, helps narrow the gap so that all learners achieve their goals.
“An educational system that is built on the pillars of the UD mindset requires less retrofitting, fewer resources and fewer accommodations in the long run,” explained Dr. Manju Banerjee, Vice President and Director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT) who oversees the Universal Design: Technology Integration Certificate (UD-TI) program. To meet the growing need for educators who understand what it means to learn differently and who can employ universal design principles in their practice, Landmark College offers the UD-TI Certificate program in online and blended formats. “Applying universal design in the classroom not only leverages student strengths, morally and ethically, it is the right thing to do.”
Landmark College was the first institution of higher learning to pioneer college-level studies for students with dyslexia. Today Landmark College, offering two and four-year degree options, a graduate level certificate in universal design with technology integration, and summer programs for students who learn differently, is a global leader in integrated teaching methods for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, ADHD, and ASD. Students, faculty, and other professionals from all over the world are drawn to Landmark College for its innovative educational model, one designed through research and practice to help all students who learn differently become confident, self-empowered, and independently successful learners.
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