Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Chapter 16: Universal design for learning

It is fitting that the final chapter be devoted to the concept of universal design for learning since it encapsulates many of the principles traversed in the earlier chapters of this review.

In recent years, the importance of universal design (UD), which had its origins in architecture and engineering, has been increasingly emphasised in education, where it is referred to as universal design for learning (UDL). In a nutshell, UDL involves planning and delivering programmes with the needs of all students in mind. It applies to all facets of education: from curriculum, assessment and pedagogy to classroom and school design. Hence, in their recent review, Shaddock et al. (2009) gave considerable prominence to it, describing it as a ‘leading practice [that] should pervade policy, planning and delivery’ (p.15).

The theme of this chapter is that educational services and policies should be universally designed and inclusive of the needs of SWSEN, along with those of all other students. In other words, regular education should be accessible to all students in terms of pedagogy, curriculum and resourcing, through the design of differentiated learning experiences that minimise the need for subsequent modifications for particular circumstances or individuals.

In this chapter, two topics will be discussed: (a) universal design, and (b) universal design for learning.

16.1 Universal Design

The American architect and designer Ronald L. Mace and his co-workers, at what became the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, first used the term ‘universal design’ in the 1980s. Their original aim was to create built environments and tools that are accessible to as many people as possible. As defined by the Center, ‘universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for [subsequent] adaptation or specialized design’. Seven principles for UD have been developed:

  1. Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to any group of users. For example, a website that is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a museum that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of a display case.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, or language skills. Science laboratory equipment with control buttons that are clear and intuitive is a good example of an application of this principle.
  4. Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. An example of this principle being employed is when multimedia projected in a noisy academic conference exhibit includes captioning.
  5. Tolerance for error: The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintentional actions. An example of a product applying this principle is educational software that provides guidance when the student makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue. Doors that are easy to open by people with a wide variety of physical characteristics demonstrate the application of this principle.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility. A science laboratory work area designed for use by students with a wide variety of physical characteristics and abilities is an example of employing this principle. 
    (Centre for Universal Design, 2010; Ginnerup, 2009)

Although UD standards address the needs of people with disabilities, its originators emphasised that it is a comprehensive concept designed to benefit all users. Thus, it involves developing products (appliances, settings, systems, and processes), which can be used by a wide variety of persons with different levels of abilities in a wide variety of settings, conditions, and circumstances. It goes beyond the issue of mere accessibility of buildings for people with disabilities and should become an integral part of policies and planning in all aspects of society (Ginnerup, 2009). Not to take account of these principles risks creating what Imrie & Kumar (1998) graphically referred to as ‘apartheid by design’.

16.2 Universal Design for Learning

In the US, one of the key recommendations of the President’s Commission (2002) was to incorporate universal design in accountability tools: ‘all measures used to assess accountability and educational progress [should] be developed according to principles of universal design so that modifications and accommodations are built into the test that will not invalidate the results’ (p.27).

But, as we shall see, UDL goes well beyond assessment. It recommends ways to provide cognitive, as well as physical, access to the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. In education, it is usually referred to as ‘Universal Design for Learning’ (UDL), which ‘refers to the creation of differentiated learning experiences that minimise the need for modifications for particular circumstances or individuals’ (Villa et al., 2005, p.35). Thus, rather than adapting things for individuals at a later time, UDL environments are created from the outset to be accessible to everyone. In other words, ‘pre-fitting’ not ‘retro-fitting’ is the aim.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (2010) provides a useful definition of UDL as being:

the design of instructional materials and activities that allows the learning goals to be achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. It is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with disparities in abilities and background as well as those with no visible disabilities. [It] applies not only to the content, but also to goals, methods, and manner of assessment.

The Center goes on to point out that in UDL, (a) alternatives should be built into instruction and should not have to be added on later; (b) it is intended to be inclusive, not solely for those who have disabilities; and (c) it should comprise more than accommodations for physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities, but should include students with differing abilities, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and approaches to learning.

According to the Center on Universal Design for Learning, three overarching primary principles guide UDL:

  •  Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the ‘what’ of learning). Students differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information better through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. In reality, there is no one means of representation that will be optimal for all students; providing options in representation is essential.
  • Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the ‘how’ of learning). Students differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant motor disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders, ADHD), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently and will demonstrate their mastery very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in writing text but not oral speech, and vice versa. In reality, there is no one means of expression that will be optimal for all students; providing options for expression is essential.
  • Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the ‘why’ of learning). Students differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. Some students are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while other are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. In reality, there is no one means of engagement that will be optimal for all students; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.

The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines on the next page further expands on these principles.

More specifically, citing Lance & Wehmeyer (2001), Wehmeyer et al. (2002) identified six criteria of UDL:

Equitable use: materials can be used by students who speak various languages; they address a variety of levels in cognitive taxonomies and provide alternatives that appear equivalent and, thus, do not stigmatise students.
Flexible use: materials provide multiple means of representation, presentation and student expression.
Simple and intuitive use: materials are easy to use and avoid unnecessary complexity; directions are clear and concise; and examples are provided.
Perceptible information: materials communicate needed information to students independent of ambient conditions or students’ sensory abilities; essential information is highlighted; and redundancy is included.
Tolerance for error: students have ample time to respond, are provided with feedback, can undo previous responses, can monitor progress, and are provided with adequate practice time.
Low physical and cognitive effort: materials present information in chunks that can be completed in a reasonable time frame.

Elsewhere, the present writer pointed out that as rehabilitation services expand, particularly in the area of assistive technology, there will be an increasing need for some degree of international standardisation (Mitchell, 1999).

© 2009 by CAST. All rights reserved.
APA Citation: CAST (2008). Universal design for learning guidelines version 1.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines

I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

  1. Provide options for perception
  • Options that customize the display of information
  • Options that provide alternatives for auditory information
  • Options that provide alternatives for visual information
  1. Provide options for language and symbols
  • Options that define vocabulary and symbols
  • Options that clarify syntax and structure
  • Options for decoding text or mathematical notation
  • Options that promote cross-linguistic understanding
  • Options that illustrate key concepts non-linguistically
  1. Provide options for comprehension
  • Options that provide or activate background knowledge
  • Options that highlight critical features, big ideas, and relationships
  • Options that guide information processing
  • Options that support memory and transfer

II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

  1. Provide options for physical action
  • Options in the mode of physical response
  • Options in the means of navigation
  • Options for accessing tools and assistive technologies
  1. Provide options for expressive skills and fluency
  • Options in the media for communication
  • Options in the tools for composition and problem solving
  • Options in the scaffolds for practice and performance
  1. Provide options for executive functions
  • Options that guide effective goal-setting
  • Options that support planning and strategy development
  • Options that facilitate managing information and resources
  • Options that enhance capacity for monitoring progress

III. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

  1. Provide options for recruiting interest
  • Options that increase individual choice and autonomy
  • Options that enhance relevance, value, and authenticity
  • Options that reduce threats and distractions
  1. Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
  • Options that heighten salience of goals and objectives
  • Options that vary levels of challenge and support
  • Options that foster collaboration and communication
  • Options that increase mastery-oriented feedback
  1. Provide options for self-regulation
  • Options that guide personal goal-setting and expectations
  • Options that scaffold coping skills and strategies
  • Options that develop self-assessment and reflection

16.3 Summary

  1. Universal Design (UD) had its origins in architecture and engineering, and has been increasingly emphasised in education, where it is usually referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
  2. UD may be defined as ‘the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design’.
  3. UDL involves planning and delivering programmes with the needs of all students in mind from the outset. It applies to all facets of education: from curriculum, assessment and pedagogy to classroom and school design.
  4. Three overarching principles guide UDL: (a) provide multiple means of representation, (b) provide multiple means of action and expression, (c) provide multiple means of engagement.
  5. More specifically, UDL requires that the following criteria be met (a) equitable use, (b) flexible use, (c) simple and intuitive use, (d) perceptible information, (e) tolerance for error, and (f) low physical and cognitive effort.