Inclusive Education: It’s Not the Students Who Are Disabled

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
April 14, 2017

The first organization to address the personalization of instruction for all students was the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). CAST is still going strong today. Their research on increasing outcomes for students with disabilities began in 1984, when they explored benefits of using emerging technology to make traditional education more accessible for all students. Working in classrooms with students, researchers at CAST quickly observed that these technology-based learning supports not only fostered inclusion and allowed students with disabilities to be educated with their peers, but the supports benefited the other students as well. In the early 1990’s, they began to shift their approach to the disabilities of schools rather than individual students.[i]

In Mace’s last public speech[ii], he shared more about his philosophy on UD. He said:

“Universal design broadly defines the user. It’s a consumer market driven issue. Its focus is not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people. It actually assumes the idea, that everybody has a disability and I feel strongly that that’s the case. We all become disabled as we age and lose ability, whether we want to admit it or not. It is negative in our society to say “I am disabled” or “I am old.” We tend to discount people who are less than what we popularly consider to be “normal.” To be “normal” is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of “normal.” This just is not the case.”

An explanation for these principles follows.

Provide multiple means of engagement

Student engagement is equal parts attention and commitment. In order for students to pay attention, they need learning opportunities that are relevant, authentic, and meaningful. Since students are different from one another, there is no one curriculum that will be authentic to everyone. This is why teachers design and deliver curriculum with embedded options so all students can make choices to personalize their learning.

In order to be committed, students need to learn how to maintain effort and persistence, cope when learning experiences are challenging, and self-reflect to help to guide their learning. In a universally designed classroom, these skills are explicitly taught by providing students with opportunities to practice these skills in meaningful ways as they work toward their goals.

Provide multiple means of representation

When teachers present information, they often use a single representation and provide the same lesson to all students. This is often done in a lecture, by playing a video, conducting a lab, or presenting or demonstrating information, teaching vocabulary, etc… Because there is significant variability in students, they differ in the information they need to gather before applying it in an authentic assessment. By providing multiple opportunities and options for students to learn information, students are empowered to personalize how they build knowledge and skills.

Provide multiple means of action and expression

Once students are interested in authentic learning outcomes and they have learned the information by selecting the options that best meet their needs, they need to express their understanding in an authentic assessment. Traditionally, students were asked to share their understanding using one only means of action. For example, many teachers assess students by providing them with the same multiple choice test, essay prompt, and/or project. When teachers provide students with multiple options, they practice executive functioning skills as they analyze the task and choose the best option to demonstrate that they met the intended outcome.

Although UDL started with these core principles, the principles have expanded and developed because of recent scientific research, developments in technology, and experiences in the classroom.[iii] Because UDL and its core principles have evolved with education, it has grown to impact every major education initiative today.

[i] You can learn about CAST’s beginnings on their web site,, or see Meyer, Rose, and Gordon, 2014

[ii] Excerpt of a presentation made by Ronald L. Mace, FAIA, at “Designing for the 21st Century: An International Conference on Universal Design,” June 19, 1998, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York. Retrieved from

[iii] Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing. p.7

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