“No Boundaries” Education

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By Patricia K. Ralabate, Ed.D., Director of the National UDL Center, and David Gordon, Director of Communications at CAST and co-editor of A Policy Reader in Universal Design for Learning (with Jenna W. Gravel and Laura A. Schifter, Harvard Education Press, 2009)

In reading and reflecting on Disability.Blog’s No Boundaries Employment Series, we are inspired by the many stories of individuals who have overcome tremendous barriers to enjoy meaningful and productive careers. And we know that meaningful careers begin with excellent education for everyone – a “no boundaries” education.

The aspiration to expand learning opportunities for all individuals is gaining ground in education policy, practice and research through the growing field of universal design for learning (UDL). As Harvard Law School Dean and civil rights champion Martha L. Minow has written, “Universal design for learning is one of the few big and truly transformative ideas to emerge in education over the past two decades.”

What is UDL? In 2008, Congress defined UDL in the Higher Education Opportunity Act as “a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that (a) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (b) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports and  challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.”

UDL originated at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit educational research and development (R&D) organization founded in 1984 near Boston. CAST’s early work in using new and specialized technologies to help individuals with disabilities overcome barriers in the classroom pointed to the need for a new view of disability in education.

CAST’s researchers began to see that the education system itself is “disabled” – not the students – because the system is not flexible and nimble enough to meet the needs of individual learners. After all, disability is just one of many factors along the spectrum of human variability that account for individual differences in the classroom. Many other factors (e.g., social, cultural, linguistic and emotional) must also be accounted for in the curriculum.

In the late 1990s, CAST’s researchers drew up the three UDL principles for designing educational environments that are flexible enough to be effective for everyone:

  1. The first principle has to do with the core of learning, which addresses why anyone cares, what motivates and engages us – this varies across individuals. Providing multiple means of engagement is needed to reach all learners.
  2. The second principle deals with how we present information to the learner. No one way of representing content works for everyone, so offering multiple means of representation is crucial.
  3. The third principle addresses how we ask learners to approach a learning task. Since learners vary widely in the way they do this, offering multiple means of action and expression is essential.

The UDL principles reflect new insights from neuroscience into the nature of learning differences and echo the universal design field in architecture. They also address a challenge posed by the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which called for making the general education curriculum accessible to all. How can this be done given the constraints of traditional schooling that are largely based on printed texts? It can’t. But a universally designed learning environment can help us meet that challenge.

In recent years CAST has expanded and deepened the three principles by developing guidelines and checkpoints for each one. These specific applications of UDL are being researched and applied in classrooms around the world, and this information is feeding into our refinement of the framework. At the same time, UDL has gain broader acceptance in policy, research and practice. The National Educational Technology Plan (2010) included a strong endorsement of UDL. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, has supported a research effort to develop science curricula that are universally designed for learning. UDL initiatives are also funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many others.

Across North America, the number of state and district UDL initiatives is growing in K-12 and post-secondary settings. And since 2006, more than 45 U.S. organizations, representing general and special education, have banded together as the National UDL Task Force to advocate for including UDL in federal, state and local policy.

To learn more about UDL, visit the National UDL Center at You can read more about the Guidelines, find practical examples and helpful videos of classroom implementation, as well as tools to advocate for more inclusive education, and join the conversation of advocates and educators at UDL Connect, where people meet to intelligently and passionately pursue a new kind of education – the kind with no boundaries.

Dr. Patricia Kelly Ralabate is the director of the National Center on UDL. In this role, she directs the development of the Center’s UDL Series and builds collaborative partnerships with individuals and national organizations interested in promoting UDL.

David Gordon leads CAST’s publishing projects, communications initiatives and other efforts to disseminate research in Universal Design for Learning.

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