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  • Writer's pictureKristin Mayo

How Does Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Create a Foundation for Equity and Inclusion?

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Growing up, I did not like school. My teachers were wonderful people who truly wanted their students to succeed. I found school to be extremely boring, and not very engaging. I did well enough, graduated, and then went off to college. I did not have a learning disability. I am half Latina but didn’t have an accent, so was often considered ethnically ambiguous, or Italian. I went to a working-class private school. I had a supportive family, everything I needed, and more. I was extremely fortunate.


As an adult, I love to learn. Because as an adult, I get a choice in what I want to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it. I also learned to be very resourceful. If I don’t know how to do something, I find a book, video, or expert who can teach me. The struggles I went through in my life taught me that, though it would have been so much easier to learn that in school.


“Equity” as we know it now, didn’t exist back when I was growing up. There was no inclusion, and Universal Design for Learning was nowhere to be found in schools. The research on achievement gaps in this country is startling. The students who are most affected are those of color, those with a disability, those who come from low-income families, or those who don’t speak English.


Here are some quick facts:


During the 2018-2019 school year, the following percentages of students identified in a category below graduated with a high school diploma:

89.4% of white students

81.7% of Hispanic students

80% of economically disadvantaged students

79.6% of black students

74.3% of American Indian/Alaska Native students

68.2% of students with a disability

69.2% of ELL students


There is a disproportionate number of students of color who are inaccurately placed in special education. They are frequently not identified correctly because of teachers' biased perceptions of them, and they are often placed in subpar sped programs. (Source: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED610548.pdf)


“Low-income students are more often identified in subjective disability categories, such as emotional disability and intellectual disability, and more frequently placed in separate classrooms.” Students placed in those separate classrooms have poor academic outcomes and their expectations are typically lower."


“African American students ages 6 through 21 were over two times more likely to receive services for emotional disturbance and intellectual disabilities than were students from all other racial/ethnic groups."


“In fact, most students - and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners - spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations.” (Source: https://tntp.org/publications/view/student-experiences/the-opportunity-myth)

Why do we have such a gap? There are many factors, but one of the biggest reasons is inequitable funding for public education. Can we easily solve this issue? Unfortunately, no. However, there is something educators can do to ensure that all learners receive a high-quality education. Universal Design for Learning removes barriers and allows students to have a voice and choice in how they learn and demonstrate learning. They are provided with scaffolds to help them become independent learners. In short, teachers can design standards-based, accessible lessons that allow for learner variability. By the time our students graduate high school, our goal is that they are learners who are:


Purposeful and motivated

Resourceful and knowledgable

Strategic and goal-directed


How can school districts support the UDL framework?


Build a community where teachers feel safe trying new ideas to support their students.

Many teachers are nervous to try something new because if it fails, they may be judged accordingly by their administrators. If UDL is brand new to your teachers, encourage them to try one new thing, and assure them that it’s ok if it doesn’t go as planned. Better yet, provide an example of when you tried something new as an educator that failed, and what you learned from it. You can also create a private social media community where you share the wonderful ways you observe UDL being implemented. Focus on how it makes learning accessible for all students.


Provide high-quality, hands-on UDL training.

Providing your staff with a one-day UDL training, or a book to read on their own will not provide them with the knowledge they need to truly implement UDL. It is a vast framework, that takes a long time to understand! Make sure the PD is hands-on where teachers can apply their learning in their classrooms as well as get feedback.


Hire coaches who can continue to support teachers as they implement the framework.

Even with high-quality training, teachers need more support. They are very busy and need a coach to support them as they practice what they have learned. They can help teachers co-plan, co-teach, or help them redesign their classrooms to make them more accessible. They can also connect teachers with colleagues to share ideas or lessons, or brainstorm solutions.


Prioritize resources that are accessible.

No, technology is not absolutely necessary for UDL, but it sure does help a lot! If you want your teachers to embrace the UDL framework, you need to have resources that are accessible for ALL of your learners. Invest in a few tech tools that consider ELL students, students with executive functioning deficits, students with learning disabilities, students who are deaf, students who are blind, etc… Make sure teachers have plenty of headphones with microphones that allow students to listen while they learn or utilize speech to text.


Allow teachers to observe each other to learn and share ideas.

Identify teachers who have successfully begun to implement the UDL framework. Ask them if you can video a part of their lesson and interview them on how UDL has helped all learners succeed. If they aren’t comfortable with that, ask them to share this information at a staff meeting. Create a pineapple chart and ask those teachers if they’d be willing to allow others to observe and learn. If your school has a coach, see if they will help cover classes so teachers can observe and learn from others.


Keep ELL students and students with disabilities in classrooms with their peers as much as possible.

Research tells us that students with disabilities who are fully included are absent less, develop stronger reading and math skills, and are more likely to have jobs, or continue their education after high school. It’s also beneficial for students who are not on IEPs to learn alongside someone who learns differently from themselves. Students who are learning English will learn it faster if they are exposed to the language (with support). The UDL framework allows you to provide tier 1 instruction that is accessible to all students in your class. You can also consider a co-teaching model, or a push-in model, and use blended learning with station rotation where all students receive what they need.


Provide teachers with exemplar lessons, and time to collaborate on lesson design.

Create a library of exemplary grade-appropriate lessons that include strong instruction, high expectations, and deep engagement. Even better if you can also create a video library of short clips of teachers delivering these lessons. We are constantly modeling for our students; we need to model for each other as educators as well. Teachers also need time to develop standards-based, deeply engaging lessons. Find common planning time for teaching time to collaborate on curriculum.


I wish my teachers knew about UDL back in the ’80s and ’90s. I think about what path I might have taken in life if I was fully engaged and figured out how I learn best as a kid. Then I think about how much it could have helped students of color, students who came from low-income families, students with disabilities, or students who didn’t speak English. This describes some of my public school peers. Many struggled through school, and some are still struggling today in their 40s. I do not take my education for granted; instead, I am grateful and hope that educators think about the doors that could open for all students if they take the first step to Universally Design their classrooms.


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