Abstract

The current research in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for students with intellectual disability (ID) is briefly summarized and considered in light of the national goals presented by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) in this article. Additionally, an action plan is provided for researchers and practitioners to extend knowledge on the implementation of the UDL framework inclusive of individuals with ID.

The promise of meaningful access to the general education curriculum and positive postschool outcomes remain unfulfilled for most individuals with intellectual disability (ID). Today, students with disabilities are included in the general education setting at unprecedented levels, graduating at a higher rate than previous generations, and increasingly enrolling in postsecondary learning options (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014). Yet, this is not true for all disability groups. The vast majority of students with ID remain in segregated settings throughout their elementary, middle, and high school years, and they continue to experience limited learning and work options after high school (Butterworth & Migliore, 2015). Once again, the train has left the station with the majority of students, including an increasingly larger percentage of students with disabilities, on board—but those with ID remain back at the station. Educational reforms, instructional initiatives, and overall innovations appear to ignore the unique needs of this population. Without innovative solutions, students with ID will continue to be offered limited educational options and opportunities, and experience poor postsecondary outcomes upon graduation. To break the cycle, PreK-12 schools and postsecondary options need to consider frameworks like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a proactive measure to achieve meaningful access.

There are multiple reasons to explore the use of the UDL framework to promote further inclusionary practices for students with ID. At its core, the UDL framework seeks to further realize meaningful access to and participation in the demands of the general education curriculum and settings, and to promote positive learner outcomes (CAST, 2011; www.cast.org). Individuals with ID across the lifespan can benefit from instructional practices when those practices are designed and developed in alignment to the principles of UDL. This special issue sought to illustrate ways UDL has been used and measured to expand learning opportunities for individuals with ID. Although each article demonstrated the beginning stages of work, additional efforts are required if we are to further our understanding of the impact UDL-aligned instructional experiences can have on the learning experiences and subsequent outcomes of individuals with ID.

Recently, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) met to establish research and practice goals for the field of ID for the next 10 years. UDL had a prominent role in the goals established for K-12 education. Specifically, the following two foci were established around UDL:

  • 1.

    Evaluate specific applications of a UDL framework within learning environments, including conditions necessary for implementation, barriers associated with implementation, and the roles of special education and general education personnel in implementation.

  • 2.

    Research the efficacy of UDL as an inclusive assessment, curricula, and instructional framework to ensure its broad application within K-12 educational settings. (Thoma, Cain, & Walther-Thomas, 2016, p. 57)

AAIDD's call is a critical voice. Future work in broadening the impact of UDL practices with individuals with ID is needed. Fortunately, federal policy and state initiatives continue to recognize the relevancy of UDL. For example, UDL has been included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and the National Education Technology Plan of 2016. The inclusion of the UDL framework in public policy has the potential to further impact funding and subsequent program development. As states and local school districts develop initiatives surrounding UDL, considerations for students with ID must be included.

A primary purpose of this special issue was to directly contribute to this conversation. Sharing current research that directly involves UDL and individuals with ID is needed. It expands our understanding, determines what questions need to follow, and provides foundational work from which to build. And build we must. AAIDD is looking to the future, yet we need solutions now in the Prek-12 classroom and postsecondary environments. We need to identify solutions that consider ways to enhance UDL application in classrooms at all educational levels, and in community settings (e.g., employment settings) as well. Likewise, further research is needed to better understand how applying the UDL framework can affect a host of outcomes, including inclusionary outcomes for schools. We offer suggestions for practice and research pertaining to people with ID and UDL in the following section.

Looking to the Future

The future starts now. Individuals with ID need to be included in concerted implementation initiatives. To this end, we offer five specific recommendations. These recommendations are intended to guide efforts in subsequent UDL practice and critical research on UDL-based outcomes, and to further drive application across school and postschool settings.

Implement the UDL framework through aligned initiatives

Collaboration often claims the power of two. Efforts to implement the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints of UDL could learn from this example. Instead of a unique educational initiative, the UDL framework could be the backbone or the framework for an aligned solution. For example, the North Carolina Virtual Public School's Occupational Course of Study (OCS) blended learning program used the UDL framework as the foundation for the design and development of their curriculum and instruction. Through these efforts, high school students from across the state with more significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., intellectual disability) are engaged in a Common Core-based academic program, replacing their previous segregated learning experience (Sherry, Smith, & Basham, 2016).

Implementation efforts need to consider ALL individuals from inception

Thoughtful design and corresponding planning must include students in need of enrichment, students with significant intellectual challenges who would have difficulty accessing materials and curriculum designed for most typically developing children, and all peers in between. UDL should not and cannot be deemed an effective framework for advancing inclusionary practices if it only includes most—but not all—K-12 learners. Current and previous education reforms (e.g., Common Core, mandatory testing) often target the significant majority of students. Yet, a percentage of these students are often excused from the initiative (e.g., alternate assessments, retention of segregated self-contained settings). Reasons vary, but exceptions are often based on the unique needs of the excluded student instead of the limitations of the suggested practice. UDL needs to be different. State and local education professionals need to set the example. State policies and district efforts should presume the participation of ALL students. Practices to support implementation need to include examples, targeted solutions, explicit resources and materials, and similar supports that frontline practitioners are able to utilize in their subsequent implementation efforts (Coyne, Evans, & Karger, 2017).

Strengthen efforts to develop and build upon a knowledge base through research

As mentioned in Rao, Smith, & Lowrey (2017, this issue), existing research studies on the application of UDL for students with ID is limited to a small number that examine a variety of interventions in different settings. The research designs and the number of participants with ID vary, with a number of studies conducted in self-contained settings. Other studies included students with ID, but they appeared to be secondary to students with other disabilities or their typically developing peers. This leaves us with a knowledge base that is disparate and fragmented in respect to what types of UDL-based interventions and curriculum work for students with ID.

Effective models and methods for application need to be identified, publicized, and put to practice

If UDL is going to reduce barriers and create meaningful and purposeful access to inclusive environments for students with ID, educators need to become educated about effective methods and models for the application of UDL, especially in regard to current educational practices such as the Common Core career and college readiness standards. Scott, Thoma, Puglia, Temple, and D'Aguilar's (2017, this issue) findings suggested that UDL is not emphasized in teacher education programs. Preservice and practicing teachers (Lowrey, Hollingshead, & Howery, 2017) need to understand, beyond a superficial level, what works for learners with ID and how to design and implement effective instructional activities aligned to the UDL framework.

Future research can illustrate the possibilities of the impact of UDL on the lives of those with ID

If UDL is to affect the needs of students with ID, there needs to be a re-examination of the research questions being asked and the research designs being considered. Effective methods and models for applying UDL are required, considering previous findings that suggest UDL-based efforts will improve school and potentially postschool outcomes in the area of employment and community access for students with disabilities. Educators need to better understand what works for individuals with ID, and determine ways to design and implement effective instructional activities. Educators also need access to professional development materials that clearly describe ways to further integrate UDL practices in the inclusive classroom setting and at an individualized level for each student. The skills relevant for students with ID have application to all learners when provided opportunities to learn and practice this development in the general education classroom. Further research studies and associated projects are needed to examine the possibilities of UDL, the application of UDL to heighten inclusionary opportunities for learners with ID, and the assessment of these UDL practices on student outcomes.

Final Thoughts

Research findings suggest UDL-based efforts will improve school and potentially postschool outcomes in the area of employment and community access for students with disabilities, but there is a need to better understand what works for individuals with ID. Effective methods and models for the application of UDL are needed to determine ways to design and implement effective instructional activities and to describe ways to further integrate these practices in inclusive education settings. Additional research studies and associated projects are needed to further examine the possibilities of UDL, the application of UDL to heighten inclusionary opportunities for learners with ID, and the assessment of these UDL practices on student outcomes.

As an identified focus for AAIDD and individuals with ID, the purpose of this special issue was to take a step forward in the accomplishment of the two priorities listed above. We have attempted to do so by including articles that look at current practice and research in the implementation of the UDL framework in multiple settings and from multiple perspectives. We have by no means accomplished the outcomes suggested by these two priorities. Rather, we hope this special issue promotes more attention to and critical examination of the Universal Design for Learning framework as it is applied inclusively with students with ID.

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