Supporting Inclusion in the Classroom: Paula Kluth Talks UDL in Education

by Paula Kluth and Mary Pembleton

Universal Design Daily by Paula Kluth

“When talking about Universal Design for Learning, it’s helpful to first understand that the concept of universal design came from the field of architecture,” Dr. Paula Kluth, inclusion consultant and author of Universal Design Daily: 365 Ways to Teach, Support, & Challenge All Learners Using UDL, told us in a recent interview.

She went on to explain that in 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, architects suddenly had to design everything with physical accessibility in mind, on a very large scale: businesses, airports, schools, etc.

For example, automatic doors became more common and some bathroom stalls became wider, with the aim of reducing barriers for persons with disabilities.

Terminal Entrance

But universal design did more than make spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities: it benefitted people without disabilities too.

People pushing a stroller, pulling a suitcase, or carrying a heavy load could more easily enter various places as well.

Which is a wonderful and foundational aspect of universal design for learning (UDL): instead of seeing barriers as something that “belong” to an individual person, this model explores deficits in an environment, lesson or teaching approach.

UDL guides educators to look for dynamic solutions. All learners in the classroom benefit from lessons with a variety of “entry points” informed by student needs, preferences, and challenges.

UDL fosters a learning environment where different kinds of learners can thrive.

Student in classroom smiling at camera

UDL is an opportunity for:

  • Fostering authentic inclusion in the classroom and its many proven benefits, including:
    • Improved academic outcomes for students with disabilities
    • Improved social outcomes for all students
    • An increased emphasis on the individual strengths and needs
  • Creating expert learners who:
    • Are supported to develop of different aspects of student agency
    • Are self-determined and empowered
    • See themselves as both teachers and learners in the classroom

Universal Design for Learning principles aim to directly foster learner agency and self-directed learning skills.

  • Addressing barriers to learning proactively in ways that provide access, choice, and support to everyone, not just those with disabilities.

For example, universally available assistive technology tools like speech-to-text means that struggling readers, like a student with unidentified dyslexia, can better comprehend reading material.And flexible seating choices in a classroom give every learner a workspace that suits their needs and preferences for a certain lesson or period of time.

Group of school kids with a tablet in classroom

When we remove barriers to learning, Paula said, we remove barriers to not just academic success, but—in some cases—to inclusion itself. True UDL should not only be making an impact on lessons, but also on student placements.

We recently sat down with Paula to dig deep on her passion for UDL in education. She told us about the history of UDL, what we often miss when we say “universal”, and what kinds of resources are available to help folks interested in learning more about UDL as a path to inclusion.

Paula Kluth

Here’s what we asked, followed by Paula’s answers.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Paula: It was after the advent of the universal design in architecture that neuropsychologist David H. Rose and clinical psychologist Dr. Ann Meyer along with their colleagues at Harvard started thinking: Could we perhaps create a universal design for instruction?

That’s when the first model of Universal Design for Learning was born.

UDL is an educational framework that helps us reach and teach students with and without disabilities. It supports a wide variety of uniquenesses, and it’s based on busting barriers to learning.

Those barriers aren’t just limited to students with disabilities: they can include low engagement for a student who doesn’t see the relevance in a lesson, or a lack of enrichment opportunities for those
who need more challenge.

UDL started with a focus on assistive technologies (e.g., touch screens, word prediction software) and grew to incorporate a range of approaches, tools, and supports. Like that automatic sliding door, universal design for learning means making helpful tools once designed for some, available to all.

For instance, speech-to- text technology—which initially supported only those who struggled to write, is now a way that many of us send texts on our smartphones. This feature isn’t necessary for most of us, but it’s convenient and often preferred by users who are on-the-go or just want to send a longer message without typing it all out.

UDL paves a pathway to inclusion in the classroom, because it’s an approach that supports so many different learners’ abilities to thrive together in one space.

For example, every student in the classroom can
read the same book by accessing it in different ways (e.g., paperback, graphic novel, e-reader, audiobook).

Why is UDL important?

Paula: UDL is important because we are finally coming to the understanding that learner variation is the norm, that there is no “normal” or “average.”

People used to say, ‘if I have a student with a disability, what about the other, you know 30 kids in my class, as if those other 30 students all had the same profile.’

But those other students are all individuals as well, with different needs, interests, gifts, idiosyncrasies and strengths.

I also think universal design helps us to think more richly about inclusion in general as it challenges educators to think about support
beyond lesson plans.

When teachers consider engagement strategies, they are considering not only the topics they choose and the ways in which they teach, but elements central to inclusive schools: classroom community, student relationships, and belonging.

Universal design helps us to think more richly about inclusion in general, and instruction as it pertains to all different kinds of learners.

Student with headphone smiling

Could you talk a little about the word “universal” in UDL?

Paula: It’s ironic when people say ‘We’re implementing UDL in this school’ if there are still students who are not allowed into certain spaces, like students with complex support needs.

The word “universal” in Universal Design for Learning is really, I believe, a directive to the commitment to finally include and support all learners. It’s a commitment to asking: “Who’s not in this room?”

It’s the commitment to inclusion.

What do you think happens when we’re missing students with significant disabilities in the classroom?

Paula: I think everybody is losing out from an educational perspective.

When we don’t bring all of our diversities and uniquenesses into the classroom then we lose out on being able to identify barriers related to those diversities.

This helps students who may be facing similar, but less obvious, barriers.

Kids with complex support needs are catalysts for creativity in the classroom. They help us think differently and inspire innovation.

Many People Hands Holding Red Word Inclusion

What would you say to an educator who is short on time and resources, but is interested in implementing UDL?

(Note from interviewer: Paula’s book Universal Design Daily: 365 Ways to Teach, Support, & Challenge All Learners Using UDL is a wonderful resource offering manageable, bite-sized strategies and activities to promote UDL as a pathway to inclusion.)

Paula: I think it would be disingenuous to say, ‘Oh it’s no more work.’

Great teaching is a lot of work, and that’s where I lean into this and say: teachers are doing so much of this already.

And I really feel that though it would take some time to shift over in our thinking, it could actually end up being a time saver.

For example, instead of saying, I’m going to adapt this lesson for this student and this student, you could instead just offer a lesson menu or tic-tac-toe board for everybody.

Kids could be working on their own, in pairs, or in small groups with educators as they complete the selected tasks.

Or imagine a group of students in an art class. They get to their table and there’s a whole bucket of adaptive tools that anybody could access for a watercolor project.

Some students may need adapted brushes, stamps, and finger paints, and others may choose to use those items to make their paintings more interesting or simply to explore new ways of creating art.

Many teachers are using these strategies all the time without ever thinking of it in terms of universal design, or formally considering that they are offering options in representation, engagement or action and expression.

These are simply the kinds of strategies that naturally support an inclusive learning environment.

Thanks so much, Paula. This has been a pleasure.

This article barely skims the surface of a profound topic. We don’t touch on UDL principles, what you can do to start prioritizing UDL in your school, what universal implementation of assistive technology really looks like in the classroom, and so much more.

If you’re interested in taking UDL further, the following resources section includes webinars, assistive technology tools, and websites to support the kind of authentic inclusion UDL aims to facilitate.

UDL Resources:

  1. Begin your universal design for learning journey with assistive technology for all. Explore District-wide Snap&Read and Co:Writer licenses for your students.
  2. Universal Design for Learning Daily: 365 Ways to Teach, Support, & Challenge All Learners by Paula Kluth
  3. Check out this free webinar where Paula Kluth talks about driving engagement with UDL strategies
  4. Here’s another free webinar about making inclusion work with UDL, by presenters Elisa Wern, M.Ed., OTR/L, ATP / Hillary Goldthwait- Fowles, PhD.
  5. Texthelp, Don Johnston Incorporated’s parent company, offers a ton of helpful resources on UDL here.