What Middle School Educators Should Know about Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning

By Zascavage, Victoria; Winterman, Kathleen G. | Middle School Journal, March 2009 | Go to article overview

What Middle School Educators Should Know about Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning


Zascavage, Victoria, Winterman, Kathleen G., Middle School Journal


In the new millennium, the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) (2004) ask educators to maximize opportunities for students with disabilities to succeed in inclusive classrooms. To make autonomy and integration seamless, many students with special needs will need to make use of assistive technology. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1990) established the working definition of assistive technology as

Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired or commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.

(20 U.S.C. 1401 25, Sec. 300.5)

Since a technology decision is part of every Individual Educational Plan (IEP) for every student with a disability (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendment, 1997), students who have sensory disabilities, such a hearing or vision, arrive at the middle school comfortable with their use of assistive technology devices. For the students with a specific learning disability who may not have needed technology at the elementary level, facing the increased demands of middle school can make a big difference. According to Gargiulo (2006), a majority of students with specific learning disabilities have reading and writing delays. Whereas, in the elementary years, students may not have needed the additional support, in middle school, technologies such as word prediction, spell check, graphic organizers, or books on tape may be necessary to facilitate successful adjustment.

Most middle school general educators are familiar with computer-enhanced instruction and the use of technology for research projects, presentations, and interactive learning software. As we restructure to meet the demand for equitable education for all students (No Child Left Behind, 2001), Universal Design for Learning becomes an important tool. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is research-based model for curricular design that ensures participation in the general educational program of all students, including those with disabilities (Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), 2007). UDL emerged from the original work of Ron Mace, a renowned architect, whose work changed the blueprint of American architectural design. He designed buildings based on the needs of the intended users of the space (CAST, 2007). Mace's overarching principle was to accommodate the widest spectrum of users, including those with disabilities, without the need for subsequent adaptation or special design. In the early 1990s the staff at CAST began to expand Mace's principle to incorporate the concept of Universal Design to adapt curricula that met the needs of all learners. The goal was information accessibility for all learners. UDL supports learners by providing teachers with varying methodology options for presenting information and content. The incorporation of technology has been one way to make this happen.

In the inclusive middle school, the principles of UDL, a form of differentiated instruction, allow all students access to the methods, materials, and technology that will maximize their learning. The framework of a UDL classroom begins with curricula designed to maintain high expectations for all types of learners. In this manner, UDL uses technology to supplement and enhance individualized assessment and instruction (CAST, 2007).

Overview of assistive technology

The 1997 amendments to IDEA assigned the final responsibility for the decisions on assistive technology services provided to students and their families to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team. Since 1997, we no longer confine evaluation for assistive technology to disability issues of such a severe nature that assistive technology becomes an easily recognizable need. Technology access is now an entitlement for all students protected by IDEA (i. …

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