Teaching Students with Disabilities

Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning (UDL) is a set of principles for designing curriculum that provides all individuals with equal opportunities to learn. UDL is designed to serve all learners, regardless of ability, disability, age, gender, or cultural and linguistic background. UDL provides a blueprint for designing goals, methods, materials, and assessments to reach all students including those with diverse needs. Grounded in research of learner differences and effective instructional settings, UDL principles call for varied and flexible ways to:

  • Present or access information, concepts, and ideas (the “what” of learning),
  • Plan and execute learning tasks (the “how” of learning), and
  • Get engaged—and stay engaged—in learning (the “why” of learning)

UDL is different from other approaches to curriculum design in that educators begin the design process expecting the curriculum to be used by a diverse set of students with varying skills and abilities. UDL is an approach to learning that addresses and redresses the primary barrier to learning: inflexible, one-size-fits-all curricula that raise unintentional barriers. Learners with disabilities are the most vulnerable to such barriers, but many students without disabilities also find that curricula are poorly designed to meet their learning needs. UDL helps meet the challenges of diversity by recommending the use of flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies that empower educators to meet students’ diverse needs. A universally designed curriculum is shaped from the outset to meet the needs of the greatest number of users, making costly, timeconsuming, and after-the-fact changes to the curriculum unnecessary. The UDL framework is grounded in three principles

  • Multiple means of representation – using a variety of methods to present information, provide a range of means to support
  • Multiple means of action and expression –providing learners with alternative ways to act skillfully and demonstrate what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement – tapping into learners’ interests by offering choices of content and tools; motivating learners by offering adjustable levels of challenge.

Students Benefit from UDL

Students benefit from two major aspects of UDL: (1) its emphasis on flexible curriculum, and (2) the variety of instructional practices, materials, and learning activities. All students, including those learning English, older students, and those with disabilities appreciate the multifaceted ways content is presented, as well as options for demonstrating what they know. UDL helps educators meet the challenge of serving those with special needs while enhancing learning for all.

Incorporate UDL in the Classroom

Instructors may want to try the following strategies (Rose & Meyer, 2002):

  • Use multiple strategies to present content. Enhance instruction through the use of case studies, music, role play, cooperative learning, hands-on activities, field trips, guest speakers, Web-based communications, and educational software. Example: Students can role-play important events in American history to give them a better understanding of the events and people involved. Also, offer a choice of learning contexts by providing opportunities for individual, pair, and group work as well as distance learning, peer learning, and fieldwork.
  • Use a variety of materials. To present, illustrate, and reinforce new content, use materials such as online resources, videos, podcasts, PowerPoint presentations, realia, manipulatives, and e-books.
  • Provide cognitive supports. Give students organizing clues; for example: “I have explained the four main points, and now I am going to summarize them.” Present background information for new concepts using pictures, artifacts, videos, and other materials that are not lecture-based. Scaffold student learning (provide temporary support to reduce the complexity of a task) by providing a course syllabus, outlines, summaries, study guides, and copies of PowerPoint slides.
  • Teach to a variety of learning styles. Build movement into learning. Give instructions both orally and in writing to engage students auditorily
    and visually. Consider using large visual aids for slides, graphics, and charts.
  • Provide flexible opportunities for assessment. Allow students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways that include visual and oral presentation, rather than only written assessment.

Video 7.6.1. UDL at a Glance explains universal design for learning and the UDL guidelines.

CAST: Universal Design for Learning

For more information, read about research, guidelines, and suggestions at the Universal Design for Learning website.

Alternative Assessments

In the context of students with disabilities, assessment refers to gathering information about a student in order both to identify the strengths of the student and to decide what special educational support, if any, the student needs. In principle, of course, these are tasks that teachers have for all students: assessment is a major reason why we give tests and assignments, for example, and why we listen carefully to the quality of students’ comments during class discussions. For students with disabilities, however, such traditional or conventional strategies of assessment often seriously underestimate the students’ competence (Koretz & Barton, 2003/2004; Pullin, 2005). Depending on the disability, a student may have trouble with (a) holding a pencil, (b) hearing a question clearly, (c) focusing on a picture, (d) marking an answer in time even when he or she knows the answer, (e) concentrating on a task in the presence of other people, or (f) answering a question at the pace needed by the rest of the class. Traditionally, teachers have assumed that all students either have these skills or can learn them with just modest amounts of coaching, encouragement, and will power. For many other students, for example, it may be enough to say something like: “Remember to listen to the question carefully!” For students with disabilities, however, a comment like this may not work and may even be insensitive. A student with visual impairment does not need to be reminded to “look closely at what I am writing on the board”; doing so will not cause the student to see the chalkboard more clearly—though the reminder might increase the student’s anxiety and self-consciousness.

There are a number of strategies for modifying assessments in ways that attempt to be fair and that at the same time recognize how busy teachers usually are. One is to consider supplementing conventional assignments or tests with portfolios, which are collections of a student’s work that demonstrate a student’s development over time, and which usually include some sort of reflective or evaluative comments from the student, the teacher, or both (Carothers & Taylor, 2003; Wesson & King, 1996). Another is to devise a system for observing the student regularly, even if briefly, and informally recording notes about the observations for later consideration and assessment. A third strategy is to recruit help from teacher assistants, who are sometimes present to help a student with a disability; an assistant can often conduct a brief test or activity with the student, and later report on and discuss the results with you.

If you reflect on these strategies, you may realize that they may sometimes create issues about fairness. If a student with a disability demonstrates competence one way but other students demonstrate it another, should they be given similar credit? On the other hand, is it fair for one student to get a lower mark because the student lacks an ability—such as normal hearing—that teachers cannot, in principle, ever teach?

Response to Intervention

Response to intervention (RTI) is an approach to academic intervention that provides early, systematic, and appropriately intensive assistance to children who are at risk for or already underperforming compared to their peers. RTI seeks to promote academic success through universal screening, early intervention, frequent progress monitoring, and increasingly intensive research-based instruction or interventions for children who continue to have difficulty.

RTI was proposed as an alternative to the ability–achievement discrepancy model, which requires children to exhibit a significant discrepancy between their ability (often measured by IQ testing) and academic achievement (as measured by their grades and standardized testing). Methods to identify students with specific learning disabilities have been controversial for decades. Opponents of the ability-achievement discrepancy model have charged that this method leads to over-diagnosing low-performing students with having a learning disability. Proponents of RTI claim that the process brings more clarity to the diagnostic process and helps differentiate low-performing and leading disabled students. In the process of identifying learning disabilities, RTI differs from the formerly standard “ability–achievement discrepancy” approach in that decisions are based on outcomes of targeted interventions rather than mathematical discrepancies between scores achieved on standardized assessments.

RTI now refers to an education framework that involves research-based instruction and interventions, regular monitoring of student progress, and the subsequent use of these data over time to make a variety of educational decisions, including, but not limited to learning disabilities. To facilitate this broadened conception of RTI, there was a shift to labeling this as one of the approaches of a Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) occurring in schools and the professional literature.

In the RTI process, service delivery is typically divided into three levels (tiers) of support, with the intensity of interventions increasing with each level.

Tier 1 is focused specifically on the core curriculum, with instruction and interventions targeting all students. Approximately 80% to 85% of the general student body should be able to meet grade-level norms without additional assistance beyond the first tier. Students who consistently do not perform within the expected level of performance are then provided with additional supplementary interventions at Tier 2, which typically involves small group instruction. Approximately 3% to 6% of students will continue to have difficulties after Tier 2 interventions; these students will then receive Tier 3 individualized intervention services, which is the most intense level of intervention (often one-on-one) provided in the regular education environment. Through RTI, educators can get enough evidence-based data to eliminate the possibility that the poor of academic performance is due to inadequate instruction. Therefore, it is argued that RTI is a more powerful process to identify whether a student has a learning disability. 

Response to Intervention Action Network

For more information on Response to Intervention, including interventions, the theoretical basis for the model, and research on the process, the Response to Intervention Action Network is an excellent source.

Least Restrictive Environment

The IDEA legislation calls for placing students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (or LRE), defined as the combination of settings that involve the student with regular classrooms and school programs as much as possible. The precise combination is determined by the circumstances of a particular school and of the student. A kindergarten child with a mild cognitive disability, for example, may spend the majority of time in a regular kindergarten class, working alongside and playing with non-disabled classmates and relying on a teacher assistant for help where needed. An individual with a similar disability in high school, however, might be assigned primarily to classes specially intended for slow learners, but nonetheless participate in some school-wide activities alongside non-disabled students. The difference in LREs might reflect teachers’ perceptions of how difficult it is to modify the curriculum in each case; rightly or wrongly, teachers are apt to regard adaptation as more challenging at “higher” grade levels. By the same token, a student with a disability that is strictly physical might spend virtually all his or her time in regular classes throughout the student’s school career; in this case, adjustment of the curriculum would not be an issue.

For you, the policy favoring the least restrictive environment means that if you continue teaching long enough, you will very likely encounter a student with a disability in one or more of your classes, or at least have one in a school-related activity for which you are responsible. It also means that the special educational needs of these students will most often be the “mildest.” Statistically, the most frequent forms of special needs are learning disabilities, which are impairments in specific aspects of learning, and especially of reading. Learning disabilities account for about half of all special educational needs—as much as all other types put together. Somewhat less common are speech and language disorderscognitive disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (or ADHD). Because of their frequency and of the likelihood that you will meet students for whom these labels have been considered, I describe them more fully later in this chapter, along with other disability conditions that you will encounter much less frequently.

Individual Educational Plan

The third way that IDEA legislation and current educational approaches affect teachers is by requiring teachers and other professional staff to develop an annual individual educational plan (or IEP) for each student with a disability. The plan is created by a team of individuals who know the student’s strengths and needs; at a minimum it includes one or more classroom teachers, a “resource” or special education teacher, and the student’s parents or guardians. Sometimes, too, the team includes a school administrator (like a vice-principal) or other professionals from outside the school (like a psychologist or physician), depending on the nature of the child’s disability. An IEP can take many forms, but it always describes a student’s current social and academic strengths as well as the student’s social or academic needs. It also specifies educational goals or objectives for the coming year, lists special services to be provided, and describes how progress toward the goals will be assessed at the end of the year. Exhibit 3 shows a simple, imaginary IEP. (But keep in mind that the actual visual formats of IEP plans vary widely among states, provinces, and school jurisdictions.) This particular plan is for a student named Sean, a boy having difficulties with reading. IEPs, like the one in the figure, originally served mainly students in the younger grades, but more recently they have been extended and modified to serve transition planning for adolescents with disabilities who are approaching the end of their public schooling (West, et al., 1999). For these students, the goals of the plan often include activities (like finding employment) to extend beyond schooling.

An IEP for Sean Cortinez. His birthday is May 26 2002. There are slots to include the period covered by the IEP, Sean’s address, his phone, his school, his grade level, and his teachers. The IEP reads as follows. Support team. List specialists (educational, medical, or other) involved in assisting the student. Resource teacher, instructional aide (part time). Special curriculum needs to be addressed: list general needs here; use separated sheets for specific short-term objectives as appropriate. Sean can read short, familiar words singly, but cannot read connected text even when familiar. Needs help especially with decoding and other word attack skills. Some trouble focusing on reading tasks. Sean speaks clearly and often listens well when the topic interests him. Special materials or equipment needed. Modified test procedures and reading materials as required. There are locations for the parent, teacher, and principal to sign the IEP. The date is included at the bottom.

Figure 7.6.1. A sample individual education plan (IEP).

If you have a student with an IEP, you can expect two consequences for teaching. The first is that you should expect to make definite, clear plans for the student, and to put the plans in writing. This consequence does not, of course, prevent you from taking advantage of unexpected or spontaneous classroom events as well in order to enrich the curriculum. But it does mean that an educational program for a student with a disability cannot consist only of the unexpected or spontaneous. The second consequence is that you should not expect to construct an educational plan alone, as is commonly done when planning regular classroom programs. When it comes to students with disabilities, expect instead to plan as part of a team. Working with others ensures that everyone who is concerned about the student has a voice. It also makes it possible to improve the quality of IEPs by pooling ideas from many sources—even if, as you might suspect, it also challenges professionals to communicate clearly and cooperate respectfully with team members in order to serve a student as well as possible.

Guide to Special Education

The Advocates for Children of New York’s Guide to Special Education provides an overview of special education services, the rights of
students with disabilities, and the rights of parents of a child with a disability, including the process for identifying students with disabilities and how to plan for special education services.

For more information about special education services for younger children, refer to Advocates for Children’s Guide to Early Intervention and Guide to Preschool Special Education Services.