I graduated from LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) in 2014 and joined their faculty in 2021. The goal of the LEND program is to improve access to health care for children and adults with neuroevelopmental disabilities by working to eliminate the barriers and training a multidisciplinary workforce in the field of maternal and child health. I believe I was the first trainee with lived experience to graduate from the program. Now it’s a requirement that at least one individual with a disability be accepted each year. Including trainees with disabilities is an asset to the program because they offer real personal perspectives of navigating the health care services system. A degree is not required for trainees with disabilities or family members. Because all of the trainees have such diverse educational backgrounds, they will learn a lot from each other, and LEND will have to be more thoughtful about delivering information and crafting assignments. As a new faculty member, I knew it would be important to understand more about the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. (It’s also a great blog topic.) By incorporating the principles of UDL, I believe that we can meet the varying educational needs of all trainees.
The concept was inspired by the Universal Design Movement in architecture developed by Professor Ronald Mace of North Carolina University. The idea is that environments and products should be attractive and useable by everyone regardless of their ability, age, or status in life, i.e., wheelchair users benefit from curb cuts and so do people pushing strollers and people making deliveries. The Center for Applied Specialized Technologies (CAST) was incorporated in 1984 by Dr. David Rose and Dr. Ann Myers. The two researchers from the Harvard School of Graduate Education wanted to make education more inclusive for students with disabilities. The goal of CAST was to customize the way students with disabilities were taught by teaching them to use technology. By 1990 the goal went from changing the students to changing the environment and removing barriers to learning.
UDL is a framework developed to improve teaching and learning for everyone regardless of grade level. It is based on scientific research on how people learn. It turns out there is no such thing as an average student. So if we design for the student that needs a little extra help, and the student who needs to be challenged, we will also meet the needs of learners that fall somewhere in the middle. The way we learn is as unique as our fingerprints. UDL course instruction, materials, and content are created with flexibility and choice in mind. Allowing students to take some responsibility for what they are learning is key to their success. Since everyone can access information in the way that works best for them, the need for accommodations is lessened. The goal is to help students become motivated, independent problem solvers who are lifelong learners.
Three core principles make up the UDL framework. These principles are based on the cognitive neuroscience of how everyone learns. There are many ways to remove barriers from learning while still challenging students. When instructors are writing goals for a lesson, they need to ask themselves what are the most important concepts I want my students to understand? Giving students choice and keeping things flexible with S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound) is helpful. Reflecting on what is working, and what is not, is also a very important part of the process. The activities listed below are examples of what could be done in a college-level course.
1. Provide multiple means of engagement–the focus is on the affective network or the why of learning.
· Let students have as much choice as possible about topics they choose to study.
· Encourage students to do a deeper dive with course material or provide extra resources.
· Encourage students to develop their educational goals or keep in mind career goals after graduation.
2. Provide multiple means of representation–the focus is on the recognition network or the what of learning.
· Provide options for students to learn course content such as video, audio, text, or graphics.
· Embed hyperlinks in assignments for vocabulary and resources.
· Use graphics to help students understand concepts.
3. Provide multiple means of action and expression–the focus is on the strategic network or the how of learning.
· Students should have options for communicating with the instructor and each other.
· Model and encourage critical thinking.
· Flexible assessments allow students to use multimedia to show what they have learned, such as video, artwork, music, and graphics.
Learners need to use all three of these networks to master new concepts. A learner needs to be interested to move an idea from short-term memory to long-term memory, and a concept must be relevant or meaningful to them to make it memorable in the long term. They should be then able to demonstrate what they have learned.
From where I sit…
Special education should be for every student. Universal Design for Learning blurs the line between special education and general education. It is a student-centered, strength-based approach to teaching that plans for, and welcomes, the diversity among learners in every classroom. The question should never be, is Sarah smart? It should always be, how is Sarah smart? You can bet Sarah knows how she is smart. She should be able to learn the way it works best for her. Everyone should have the opportunity to be a lifelong learner.
Just a reminder: March is National Developmental Disability Month. We as a nation still have a very long way to go to equal the playing field for everyone with a disability, and this is especially true for those who have been labeled with an intellectual or developmental disability.