Universal Design in Elementary and Middle School: Designing Classrooms and Instructional Practices to Ensure Access to Learning for All Students

Article excerpt

The Association for Childhood Education International's (ACEI) mission includes helping educators meet the needs of students in a climate of societal change. One such change is the increasing diversity of learning needs within elementary and middle school classrooms. Increased numbers of students with disabilities served within the general education classroom have contributed to this diversity (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Students with diverse needs present a challenge for elementary and middle school teachers because it may be difficult to ensure that all students meet expectations. Under current legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), all students, including those with disabilities, are expected to be proficient at grade level by 2013. Similarly, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004) states that students with disabilities should have increased access to the general education curriculum and that accommodations should be designed according to the students' needs.

In carrying out the mission of ACEI and complying with federal legislation, it is important that students with disabilities have accommodations written into their individualized educational programs (IEPs) and that these students receive accessible instruction. General education teachers play a critical role in both IEP development and implementation of accessible instruction. As members of the multidisciplinary IEP team, general education teachers have a unique understanding of curricular materials, texts, equipment, and technology within the general education setting that is critical in designing appropriate accommodations. These accommodations should support teachers' other role, that of implementing instruction that is assessible to all students. While this role may seem daunting, tools are available for designing classroom environments and instruction that are conducive to the learning of all students.

Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) is a set of principles helpful in guiding this process. UDI, designed by the Center for Applied Special Technology, is a framework that has been successful for all students, including those with disabilities in general education settings (Cawley, Foley, & Miller, 2003; McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006; Pisha & Coyne, 2001; Pisha & Stahl, 2005). UDI ensures that all students have access to instruction through the following principles: 1) equitable use, 2) flexibility in use, 3) simple and intuitive, 4) perceptible information, 5) tolerance for error, 6) low physical effort, and 7) size and space for approach and use. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of UDI, as well as practical classroom applications for elementary and middle school teachers.

Equitable Use

Equitable use means that all students can use materials, equipment, and technology in the classroom. The most common materials that can be inaccessible to students with disabilities are textbooks. As students advance in school, the emphasis on reading to learn increases and accessibility of textbooks becomes increasingly important in the content areas as students move through to middle school. Textbooks are inaccessible if students' reading levels are several levels below their grade placement, students cannot read the print due to its small size, and/or students have difficulty holding a book due to its size and weight. However, textbooks can be made accessible to students through the use of books on tape and through digital texts (Boyle et al., 2003; Twyman & Tindal, 2006). Books on tape are available through such nonprofit organizations as Readings for the Blind and Dyslexic, a free service for school districts and individuals with reading and visual disabilities. Digital texts allow for physical access, magnification of print, changes in contrast (i.e., increased color contrast between the print and page background), as well as audio output. …