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Universal Design: Creating a Learning Space for All Students

Posted on Aug 31, 2012

Over a decade ago, an article published in Remedial and Special Education made the case that a divide was growing between “incrementalists” and “reconceptualists” in the field of special education. As told by authors Susan Baglieri, Jan W. Valle, David J. Connor, and Deborah J. Gallagher in Disability Studies in Education: The Need for a Plurality of Perspectives on Disability, having identified a problem within special education, an effort was made to combine the two positions in order to take advantage of the valid points each side offered. This led to the perspective that the work of special education “is primarily to shape learning environments in ways in which all classroom and school members have access to curriculum and learning opportunities. This boils down to “imagining education as a practice of access.”

The authors argue that a major issue in addressing education for students with disabilities is that there is such a focus on “accommodation and modification” when it comes to providing students with disabilities with educational materials that a) special provisions often mark some students as “different,” leading to problems like social stigmatization, and b) this fosters a mentality in which students with disabilities end up being “extra work for the general educator in the inclusive setting.”

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is useful, then, to the extent that it can be used by any teacher working with any set of students, and would likely reduce social stigmatization of students with disabilities. The authors explain that UDL “was drawn from architecture and engineering and refers to the design of physical spaces that anticipates the diversity among users of spaces and seeks to design them such that they are both functional and elegant for the broadest possible constituency.” This explanation makes comprehending UDL easier, in that UDL strives to create a space in which practically anyone can learn, regardless of whatever strengths and weaknesses any given student might have.

UDL focuses on how a community of learners can benefit, rather than how teaching might need to be tailored for individual students, by offering a variety of contexts for students to understand new ideas. Teachers, then, are in a unique position where they can identify the settings in which each student performs best without needing to do “extra work” on a student-by-student basis.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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