The purpose of this study was to examine the language teachers used to discuss inclusion, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and learners with intellectual disability (ID) in an effort to better understand how teachers describe the relationship between those three. Utilizing a secondary analysis procedure, interview transcripts from seven general education teachers were reanalyzed to identify language used by teachers to refer to inclusive educational settings, the implementation of UDL, and learners with intellectual disability. The identified themes were then juxtaposed against the UDL framework (principles, guidelines, and checkpoints) and the current literature related to UDL and inclusive education. We end with recommendations for future practice and research involving inclusive classrooms, UDL, and learners with ID.
The percentage of students with disabilities receiving some or all of their educational services in general education has increased from 33% in 1990–91 to 62% in 2013–2014 (Kena et al., 2016). Unfortunately, this has not been the case for students with intellectual disability (ID). In the same year (2013–2014), the National Center for Education Statistics reported only 16% of students with ID spent the majority of their school day in inclusive, general education settings (Kena et al., 2016). In 1998–99, that number was 13.8% (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). In 15 years, that is a paltry gain of 2.2%. The required access, participation and progress in the general education curriculum, at least as it applies to inclusive placements, seems to have been less applied to the learning experiences of individuals with ID as compared to those with other disabilities (Kena et al., 2016). This is perplexing given more than a decade of research demonstrating a positive association between the amount of time spent in general education classrooms and gains academically, socially, and in post-school outcomes for students with ID (e.g., Cosier, Causton-Theoharis, & Theoharis, 2013; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Helmstetter, Curry, Brennan, & Sampson-Saul, 1998; White & Weiner, 2004).
During this same period, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework (Rose & Meyer, 2002) has increased in recognition. According to CAST, this scientifically valid framework is applicable to curriculum design in inclusive classrooms. Researchers (Copeland & Cosbey, 2008; Hartmann, 2015; Ryndak, Jackson, & White, 2013; Wehmeyer, 2006) have explored the promise of UDL for individuals with ID, mostly through a lens of how inclusive education might improve if the UDL framework was applied. Several have specifically studied the application of the UDL framework inclusive of students with ID (e.g., Browder, Mims, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Lee, 2008; Coyne, Pisha, Dalton, Zeph, & Smith, 2012; Dymond et al., 2006). Dymond et al., (2006) was the only study identified that researched general education teachers' experiences with students with ID, inclusive education, and UDL. Overall, while bearing much promise, the effectiveness of the UDL framework as it applies to learners with ID in inclusive settings is still undetermined. The varied understanding and implementation of inclusive education, the varied understanding and implementation of UDL, along with the low representation of learners with ID within these initiatives hinders the ability to measure the effectiveness of UDL in inclusive settings for these learners.
Although UDL has been validated as a framework, research is needed to explore, inform, and evaluate its application in practice to include randomized measures as well as those geared towards specific groups (Crevecoeur, Sorenson, Mayorga, & Gonzalez, 2014; Rao, Ok, & Bryant, 2014). The Education Strand of the National Goals 2015 Conference of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities established several research priorities regarding UDL (Thoma, Cain, & Walther-Thomas, 2015). One of those priorities was to “evaluate specific application of a UDL framework within learning environments, including necessary conditions and barriers to implementation, and the roles of special and general education personnel in its implementation” (p. 222).
The purpose of this project was to examine the specific language used to portray seven general education teachers' experiences with UDL, inclusive classrooms, and students with ID juxtaposed with UDL framework (principles, guidelines, and checkpoints; CAST, 2011) and the literature on UDL and inclusive practices.
In this project, we engaged in secondary analysis of data previously collected as part of a narrative inquiry study (see Lowrey, Hollingshead, Howery, & Bishop, under review). Narrative inquiry (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) examines the stories of participants with rich analysis allowing for a deeper insight into universal experiences. This secondary analysis was conducted to focus on a research question that was not addressed in the original study. As Gladstone, Volpe, and Boydell (2007) noted, results from an original study can suggest new research questions to extend a research line, and this was the case in this instance. Secondary analysis of qualitative data has been used frequently in the social sciences (Heaton, 2008) as a means to provide further insight, and according to Irwin (2013) it is best used when it preserves the original relationship and trust between the participants and researchers. In this project, the data set remained confidential and was reanalyzed by the same group of researchers who collected the original data.
Seven general education teachers from the United States and Canada participated in the study. After an approval of the project by the Institutional Review Board, we recruited the participants utilizing systematic communication with professional organizations, state boards of education, school districts, and social media. The qualifying criteria included the following qualities: (a) general educator; (b) working in a school district that went through district-wide implementation of UDL framework for more than a year; (c) with at least one student with moderate to severe ID included in their class. Of the seven, three teachers worked in elementary schools (Lee, Wilma, and Julie), two in middle schools (Nicole and Sue), and two at a high school level (Fern and Kate). Pseudonyms were assigned to protect the participants' confidentiality.
Procedures and Data Analysis
In order to collect the original stories from general education teachers, we conducted phone-based (Holt, 2010) semi-structured interviews that lasted between 30 and 60 minutes, with the average time of 35 minutes. Phone calls were audio recorded and transcripts were created. The constructed questions for the interview were based on both UDL and narrative inquiry literature (e.g., Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Holt, 2010).
During the initial exploratory analysis of the data, open coding from transcripts took place first (Hatch, 2002). Eight categories then emerged, and finally, the categories were refined into four themes: (a) designing for learner variability; (b) talking about inclusion; (c) teaming fosters success; and (d) differing descriptions of UDL. After this initial exploratory analysis, data suggested a more in-depth secondary analysis (Irwin, 2013) to examine the language the teachers used when describing their experiences with UDL and inclusion.
Therefore, in the current project, we intentionally re-analyzed data utilizing the parameters of inclusion and UDL, which revealed three themes: (a) language of membership (suggesting belonging and difference); (b) language of instructional planning (both intentional and unintentional); and (c) language of experiences (successes and struggles). During the coding process, we systematically conducted the confirmability check (i.e., agreement between coders) for each phase of the analysis using a peer debriefing strategy (Hatch, 2002). To ensure the trustworthiness of data (Bratlinger, Jimenez, Klingner, Pugach, & Richardson, 2005), a diverse pool of participants was recruited representing a variety of content and grade areas, school districts, and two countries. Moreover, we engaged in a systematic peer debriefing process during data collection and analysis to reduce any internal biases. Any disagreements were resolved through further debriefing and discussion.
Results & Discussion
Beginning with the assumption that the words chosen by an educator suggest that individual's underlying beliefs (Johnston, 2004), our analysis focused on the language used by teachers when relating stories of education inclusive of students with ID in school districts that have implemented the UDL framework. Through exploring the language of membership, instructional planning, and experiences, we focused on teacher descriptions of inclusive education for students with ID as well as the impact of UDL. The three languages (membership, instructional planning, and experiences) provide a context for providing insight into the relevant, extant literature focusing on inclusion, UDL, and students with ID interwoven with the stories told by the participants and references to the UDL framework (principles, guidelines, and checkpoints; CAST, 2011).
The Language of Membership
Historically, the literature of inclusive education has emphasized the importance of belonging (e.g., Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, & Schattman, 1993; Kunc, 1992; Schnorr, 1997). An interrelationship between safety and belonging (emotion) and cognitive development (learning) has been highlighted in the UDL literature (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). For example, the UDL guidelines pertaining to the principle of engagement discuss setting high expectations and beliefs to increase motivation (checkpoint 9.1) and fostering collaboration and community (checkpoint 8.3). From this frame, we examined how teachers in our study described membership of students with ID in their inclusive UDL infused classrooms. Interwoven with teachers' stories, data revealed a connection to the UDL framework terminology of principles, guidelines, and checkpoints (CAST, 2011).
Many stories spoke to a sense of belonging being created in participants' classrooms. Fern talked about students being comfortable in asking each other for help, and the success each of them gained:
Other kids help other kids. Whenever some of them are stuck they ask other kids. And I guess the best way to know something is explaining it to someone else. So I could have one student explain it to another and that helps both of them.
This relates to engagement in that students have the choice and autonomy (checkpoint 7.1) to seek help from each other while fostering collaboration and community (checkpoint 8.3).
Wilma talked about building student-to-student trust that in the UDL framework language speaks to minimizing threats (checkpoint 7.3) and fostering collaboration and community (checkpoint 8.3) for a student with ID in her classroom:
And so every year, it tends to take a little bit of time for me to get two or three students to trust that they'll guide him in that direction in that station. It usually takes two weeks and now I have a group of kids who he will go with for direction. They know how to give him explicit direction for that and they are the kids who can remind him, ‘Hey it's your turn' or ‘no it's not your turn' and they can walk him through the game playing.
It is through establishing trust that she suggested her student with ID was able to learn with his peers during a math game that she planned with the multiple means of representation in mind.
Fern described how students with ID were assigned to parts of the science project and how “other students make sure they are included whether it is holding the beaker and pouring hot water or pouring something else”. She also shared that students with ID wanted to be in a science classroom with everyone else rather than “in their own little room learning different things”. She shared, “they were a part of the group and the other kids (…) were totally relaxed and understanding with these kids because they know that some of these kids can't do what they do”. Although Fern's language did not reflect UDL terminology, the examples she provided in her stories aligned with engagement principle of UDL, specifically with guideline 8 (provide options for sustaining effort and persistence), and checkpoint 8.2 (vary demands and resources to optimize challenge) (CAST, 2011). This speaks to the fact that in order to belong one must first be physically together. Children who are members of a class should be able to feel safe with each other, trust each other, and count on each other for support.
Checkpoint 9.1 addresses the need to provide multiple ways for students to be motivated. The motivation to support a member of your class seems to have resonated with the students in Sue's class when one a student without a disability explained what inclusion and UDL meant to him:
I had one student say, “It's (UDL) kind of like the ramps and the stairs” and I said, “well what do you mean by that?” and he says, “well, here's the thing… it's like if we all have to come up the stairs, it gets real crowded but if someone is in the wheelchair and we would push that person up the ramps we could all get up the ramp too…”
Membership can also be seen as something that goes beyond a particular classroom in Lee's description of her inclusive school culture:
I'm very fortunate to have that culture that everybody is there for the kids. Like our students are everybody's students even though they may be on my class list (…) UDL really flourishes when there is a strong established culture that everyone is responsible for those kids. And that is what we need as an inclusive learning environment …
Lee was making explicit the fact that students with ID are like every other child in the school and every teacher's responsibility. Although the participants' stories shared many examples of language fostering the sense of belonging, there were also examples of language singling out students with ID that created a sense of difference rather than belonging.
A common theme in the stories analyzed seems to suggest that even though the students were included in the classroom, they were still seen as apart from or not really belonging to the class. Wilma's stories had several examples of exclusionary language. When talking about inclusive classrooms in the context of UDL implementation, Wilma used terms such as “placing students in your class” and “putting those students in your room.” Moreover, she described students with ID as “her [special education teacher's] students”. Other teachers used language emphasizing difference when describing students with ID as well. For example, Fern said “I have a set of twins that are in grade eight but mentally they are about three years old.” Kate used the terms “academic kids” to describe students without ID and “lower level kids” to describe those with ID. Language like this predisposes teachers to think of students with ID as less-able, regardless of their age. This predisposition could influence the age appropriateness of the curriculum used with students. Instead, in the terminology of the UDL framework, the teachers should promote high expectations to maximize motivation (checkpoint 9.1) and foster collaboration and community (checkpoint 8.3) to strengthen the sense of belonging among all students.
In Fern's experiences in a science classroom, the language of membership among students had elements of both belonging and difference. On one hand, Fern emphasized that each student had a part in an activity, but on the other hand, the way these parts were assigned suggested a more exclusive approach. Students with ID had minor “jobs,” “they are doing something while others are recording and creating graphs.” Kate's stories were filled with examples of giving “jobs” to all students equally. Some of these examples (e.g., rolling silverware, being a greeter at the door) may suggest low expectations for individuals with ID. To truly “vary demands and resources to optimize challenge” (checkpoint 8.2), a more inclusive approach could be to ensure all students' activities are meaningful and based on high expectations for all. Moreover, to ensure the sense of belonging and membership among students, the teachers should refrain from assigning ‘special' jobs to students with ID which may inadvertently single them out in the eyes of other students and instead provide all students with multiple means to engage in a learning activity.
Some of the terms the teachers chose to talk about the students with ID could make one question if inclusive classrooms have effectively moved past physical inclusion, if teachers are intentionally building a sense of membership and belonging for all students, and if teachers are providing instruction accessible to all students. Intentional planning using the UDL framework to overcome barriers in instruction is one method that may address these issues.
The Language of Instructional Planning
Intentionally planning for variability is a hallmark of UDL (Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005). The UDL framework helps teachers design and implement curriculum to support all learners from the start, including those with different abilities, needs, or backgrounds (Hartmann, 2015). Teachers can use UDL to design or develop flexible curricula that minimize barriers instead of assuming students with ID cannot learn or benefit from instruction (Coyne et al., 2006). Intentional planning is also involved in successful inclusive education and includes not only the individual classroom teacher, but the entire school staff (McLeskey, Waldron, & Redd, 2014). A key to effective inclusive education is collaboration between teachers and administrators to plan learning opportunities for all students (McLeskey & Waldron, 2000). In this theme we focused on the way teachers discussed specific planning for instructional barriers and learner variability in inclusive UDL classrooms. We have drawn attention to teachers' language around intentionality and unintentionality rather than the planning process itself.
When Fern discussed planning with UDL framework in mind, she shared “it needs to be inclusive so you need to design lessons so that every single person in your room can be involved in all of the assignments that you are doing.” Specifically, she shared this story about instructional planning for variability:
So whenever I am designing something I say, ‘will they [students with ID] be able to do this? Will they be able to have some sort of part in this activity?' If this answer is no, then I need to have an alternative. So, some kids if they look at their choice boards, they will be able to pick out of six different activities which way they would want to show that they've learned something. Then some of them have to write a paragraph or create a cartoon or whatever it may be. There are all different choices that they can pick from.
Fern's account was intentionally inclusive and aligned with UDL as she provided options for expression and communication (Guideline 5, checkpoints 5.2 and 5.3). Lee described her process of intentional planning as starting not with particular students but by imagining what an inclusive classroom might look like and how she can proactively reduce barriers for her students:
So, I started with really looking at student profiles and sort of diversity profiles and even before my students would be in the room, I would kind of jot down all of the kinds of students that I might encounter in an inclusive classroom. And see how I would go about taking away any obstacles or even design my classroom and even the space so that there weren't those barriers for those diverse students who would be in my room in the fall.
She suggested that for her this is a three-step process:
So, that was step one, really imagining what an inclusive student profile list would look like. Step two was physical space and making the physical space as accessible as possible. And step three was designing the lesson plans to meet student needs.
Nicole shared stories about the importance of planning instruction that provides multiple means of representation: “it is just making sure there is more than one way for the student to receive the information, so like having things that are visual and auditory.” This story speaks to checkpoints 1.2 and 1.3 of the UDL framework. Sue discussed the importance of using UDL to proactively attend to potential barriers in her inclusive classrooms: “what UDL has really taught me is that it's better to prepare for the barriers before the lesson and plan around those barriers.”
Interestingly, our participants made very few references specific to the UDL guidelines and/or checkpoints. Sue was an exception in that her description of her planning process was infused with language that was clearly aligned with UDL. She explained that, “the ultimate goal is self-regulation. It is that they're purposeful, they are motivated, they are resourceful, knowledgeable, and they're goal directed.” Her language reflects the concept of developing expert learners (Meyer et al., 2014; Rose et al., 2005) and aligns with guideline 9 of the UDL framework (provide options for self-regulation).
The participants described other processes for planning that did not specifically address the UDL principles, guidelines, or checkpoints. For example, Lee shared “my school division is following a design process and the three big headings that guides that is make it for everyone, make it visible, and make it real.” The lack of specific mention of the UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints by the teachers in this study causes some concern. The expressions of UDL being an unintentional process is intriguing because intentional planning for learner variability is one of the foundational components of UDL implementation (Basham & Marino, 2013).
It was concerning that several teachers expressed the idea that UDL does not require intentional planning. For example, this idea was reinforced to Kate at a district UDL meeting, “You know and it was funny the first time I went to a UDL meeting, the lady that was running the meeting kept saying—you do UDL every single day but you didn't know what it was called.” Sue also suggested that many teachers may be doing UDL without knowing it:
And I think the biggest thing was that I found with incorporating UDL is that a lot of it was things that I was already doing. I just didn't quite know that they were UDL. *laughs*. You know a lot of it is what teachers kind of do on their own.
Wilma's opinion was that “UDL is just good teaching. We've been doing it for years but now it has a name and a guideline to follow (…). It's good teaching and good practice and this is what we do.” Such unintentional approaches to planning for overcoming barriers seem to pose a contradiction to the intentional planning aspect of the UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints. Each one of these elements of the framework inherently assumes teacher's effort to actively and intentionally plan instruction that is accessible to all students and produces meaningful outcomes. This is different than a teacher recognizing that effective practices (e.g., differentiated instruction, accommodations, curriculum based measurement, positive behavior supports, etc.) can fit under the framework. An individual teacher's efforts to select effective practices are not a substitute for systematic, focused efforts to implement strategies aligned with UDL principles and intentionally chosen to reduce barriers and address learner variability. The concern is that UDL gets trivialized when reduced to a “same thing we've always done” narrative.
The Language of Experience
The planning process in the UDL framework is an iterative cycle where teachers constantly reflect on their successful instructional experiences and remaining instructional barriers while utilizing the components of UDL to plan forward (Rose & Meyer, 2002). In this reflective process, as teachers gain familiarity and experience with UDL, they become more effective (Coyne et al., 2006). As the result of systematic application of UDL framework, students with ID are capable of making educational gains that “few thought were possible” (Meyer et al., 2014, p.7). The UDL framework aids in creating meaningful learning experiences and more inclusive options for all students ultimately helping teachers better understand how to support students with ID (Hartmann, 2015). In this theme, we focused on the language teachers used to describe successful and unsuccessful experiences with UDL implementation in inclusive settings.
Stories of success were prominent in all of the narratives of the teachers. Kate shared her successes with providing students multiple options for expressing their skills and knowledge in her inclusive culinary arts class (guideline 4 and 5). She concluded, “that is why I have so many students who just really blossom and really thrive and kind of regain their confidence in my class because they know that they can show me what they know and show me different ways, not just pencil and paper.” Nicole shared how the use of technology created opportunities for comprehension, expression, and communication for a child with ID in her class:
She had independence in the classroom… she'll be on her iPad while the rest of the students are on their iPad. She could understand it and do things in her own way…. she would have more pictures than words and she would record her voice. And I saw the independence from it.
This story is an example of scaffolding instruction (checkpoint 5.3), maximizing student's information processing (checkpoint 3.3), and providing options for sustaining motivation (guideline 8). A final story of success shared by Sue exemplifies the principle of multiple means of representation:
And so for my students with autism or Down syndrome, we're not to the point where they can read that language and understand what it is really asking them and so for them I tend to put it on a scale with smiley faces or with a number scale. I also have posters hanging up around the room with the school-wide learning outcome questions, and with the vocabulary within the question... broken down so that they can kind of get a better understanding of what we're really asking them to do. Because, ultimately, if they do not understand what we're asking them to do we're never going to get appropriate results.
Sue's students were provided with multiple means of representation (specifically, checkpoint 1.1 and 1.3) in order to engage with and act on the learning outcomes. Her story illustrates not only the success of her students, but her own success in providing for the diverse learning needs in her inclusive classroom.
Teachers also used language that suggested they sometimes struggled and felt that they were not as successful as they wished to be in providing access, participation and progress (Rose et al., 2005) for all of their students. Teachers spoke of their worry that they may have not gone far enough in making “optimal learning a promise fulfilled – not just for some, but for all” (Meyer et al., 2014, p. 7). Lee shared this when reflecting on challenging experiences teaching with students with ID:
Then you start questioning, ‘did I do everything, what else could I have possibly done?' And those are the students that we carry with us for the rest of our career. We always question what we could've done better. So it's challenging because when you do think you've got all the brain research behind UDL and all this new knowledge that's coming out and you figure ‘okay you know, I crossed that box off and I did that and it still isn't necessarily effective for that student'. Then it allows you to grow professionally, but you still always kind of wonder what you've done.
A thread found in Julie's stories was a self-identified overreliance on technology to implement UDL in her inclusive setting. Julie discussed that when she considered the variability of her students, she realized that not all of them preferred to learn with technology. She shared, “it was really just getting to know what each kid needed and how they learned and how they were engaged instead of just saying this [technology] is so cool we're doing this awesome project.” In other words, Julie came to a realization that providing multiple means for action and expression (especially guidelines 4 and 5) does not need to involve technology.
Learning should be tied to outcomes. Through allowing multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression, the UDL framework can support teachers to identify different ways of measuring success in their instruction.
Implications for Future Research and Practice
Our study can offer direction for future research, despite the fact that it is not generalizable to other settings. Further study of the relationship between UDL and inclusive classrooms is needed to support teachers in those environments and to offer equal experiences in general education settings for students with ID. Physical access is not enough to ensure learning outcomes. “Securing the rights of individual students with disabilities to sit alongside other students in the general education classroom does not solve the access problem if the curriculum itself imposes barriers to learning” (Minnow, 2009, p. xi). Researchers should continue to explore and measure the concepts of membership, instructional planning, and experiences as they relate to individuals with ID, their teachers, and their schools. In-service professional development models utilizing UDL can be studied to determine effective implementation practices (Israel, Ribuffo, & Smith, 2014; Waitoller & Artiles, 2013). Researchers can add to the existing knowledge (Courey, Tappe, Siker, & LePage, 2013; Evans, Williams, King, & Metcalf, 2010) of teacher preparation programs by determining effective components necessary to prepare teachers to plan effectively for the variability of learners and barriers in the general education curriculum. Researchers may also analyze ways higher educational professionals update their own knowledge and utilize the UDL framework in their own instruction (Israel et al., 2014). These efforts should include considerations for students with ID.
Regarding practice, UDL has already been included in public policies in the U.S. and other countries. It is likely that states/provinces, schools, and districts are implementing UDL while research agendas are simultaneously moving in this direction. Schools and districts applying UDL and inclusive practices can join communities of practice so that their challenges and successes can be shared. Collaborations with universities, districts, or other schools in the same state/province might offer answers to more regionalized questions. Collaborations with other states/provinces and/or professional networks would allow discussion of next steps as they advance in the process. Shared professional development may lead to effective change in the implementation of UDL and inclusive practices.
Several limitations were noted in the design and implementation of this study. This was a secondary analysis of an initial exploratory inquiry into general education teachers' experiences with UDL, inclusive practices, and individuals with ID. Participants' responses were limited by the questions asked in the initial interview. Questions designed specifically to tease out the connectedness of UDL, inclusive classrooms, and learners with ID may have resulted in different answers. Stories may have included language specific to disability due to the way questions were asked about students with disability. All researchers conducted interviews which may have indirectly influenced the style and responsiveness of participants.
Throughout this paper we have highlighted the ways teachers used language to describe their experiences in implementing UDL in inclusive classrooms that specifically included individuals with ID. The language we use to discuss our practice sends a message to others regarding our beliefs about that practice (Johnston, 2004). Despite the evidence demonstrating the academic and social benefits of students with ID receiving their education in inclusive environments (Cosier et al., 2013; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Helmstetter et al., 1998; White & Weiner, 2004), there remains some question as to what it truly means to be included in general education (Copeland & Cosbey, 2008). Wehmeyer (2006) stressed the need to move beyond a focus on mere access to the general curriculum and instead to focus on ensuring all students make progress in the general curriculum. The UDL framework provides a pathway for teachers in inclusive settings to intentionally plan for meaningful ways that individuals with ID can access, participate, and make progress in the general education curriculum. It is important that we continue to prepare educators to understand the philosophy of inclusion, the UDL framework, and that we provide better information about academic and social expectations for individuals with ID. Without this ongoing work, we might have more teachers echoing Kate's words, “you can't UDL that no matter how hard you try.”