Dyslexia & Dysgraphia
Universal Design for Learning
Learning is For Life
by Mary Pembleton
“I just think differently,” says Xavier Cooper, former NFL player and founder of Everyone Learns Differently, “I want to normalize that.”
When Xavier Cooper was in high school, he discovered he has dyslexia, a learning disability that impacts a person’s ability to read.
This realization came after a long struggle with school. Despite his teachers’ efforts and his parent’s advocacy, reading and writing were very difficult for Xavier. Academically, he remained far behind many of his grade-level peers.
Once Xavier’s learning disability was identified, he was placed in a self-contained special education classroom. This is where he spent his days, while other high school students in general education attended many different classes throughout the day.
“Because of my experience with education, I felt like I was just too dumb to learn,” Xavier says, “Simple as that.”
Now, spend five minutes with Xavier, and you’ll discover very quickly that he is anything but dumb (not that anyone, anywhere deserves the label “dumb”). And Xavier has since come to embrace his learning differences, and recognize the strengths that come with them.
But it’s easy to see why he initially came to that conclusion: at the time, the educational system wasn’t built with learning differences in mind.
A traditional prerequisite of learning was the ability to read. This meant that if a student didn’t have strong decoding or fluency skills, learning often remained out of reach.
For these students, like Xavier, decoding and fluency were barriers to learning. Which is where Universal Design for Learning comes in.
Universal Design is a concept that started with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1990. Architects were suddenly required to design buildings with accessibility in mind.
For example, instead of adding a ramp to an existing building, accessibility was incorporated into the design from the beginning.
It meant that accessibility could no longer be an afterthought. Instead, it had to be a central part of designing and constructing a building.
Education can be thought of the same way. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) plans for all kinds of learning differences. It’s based on designing an educational experience that removes barriers to learning, like reading.
This means giving all students access to reading options like audiobooks and text-to-speech. Then those who struggle with decoding and fluency can learn at grade level right along with their peers.
These reading tools can be used alongside reading intervention. That way students with reading challenges can improve their decoding and fluency skills while learning other subjects and listening to engaging stories.
While UDL helps students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, it’s a framework that considers all kinds of barriers to learning: from those originally built into the system, to a student’s interests and motivation.
It sounds hard, impossible even, right? Considering everyone’s individual needs. Educators give so much already.
But UDL in action can look a lot differently than we might think. Planning with UDL in mind goes a long way.
And there’s payoff: students who engage with UDL learn how to learn. They gain agency and self-advocacy and independence.
Student agency, self-advocacy, and independence eventually helps free up educators’ time for the thing many went into teaching to do: instruction. There are schools and classrooms around the country that are thriving with a Universal Design for Learning approach.
To understand how UDL works in the classroom, check out this great resource from Texthelp and CAST, who created the UDL guidelines.
UDL aims to create an environment with many options to learn, and express what we know, in ways that works for us. And not just through reading an assignment or answering questions on a test.
It’s about providing multiple means of expression: maybe instead of a sit-down test, students make a video, maybe they create a presentation, maybe they answer questions orally.
And it’s about so much more.
All of these options make learning accessible to all kinds of learners, not just those who thrive in a more traditional learning environment. And accessibility can make all the difference.
For example, Xavier Cooper took the SAT four times. He’d been recruited to play football in college, but needed to get his test scores up. It wasn’t until the fourth time that he received any sort of accommodations.
Simply given extra time and the space to work alone, Xavier’s score jumped by 200 points.
In a recent video call, I asked Xavier how his life would have been different if he’d been given the kinds of resources and support he needed from a young age.
“I honestly don’t think I would have took the path of playing football. I thnk if I had more resources and more support, I would have gone into the science field of some sort,” he said.
But Xavier’s life did take the path of football, in a really big way. After his struggles in school, he achieved what many consider to be “the dream”: money, fame, fans. All the perks that come with playing in the NFL.
Amid the challenges of being biracial and dyslexic, sports initially gave Xavier a place to shine.
“I wasn’t white enough for my white peers, but wasn’t black enough for my black peers,” he said. “And on top of that, I have a learning disability.
“I was really alone. I really felt different. So it was like, where do I fit in? And by the grace of God, I had the ability to be good at sports, whether it was dodgeball or anything, I was always the best.”
It was being the best that led to a career in football.
“Football was something I was good at and something that gave me a sense of belonging,” Xavier said.
But after “the dream” of the NFL took more from Xavier than it gave, he chose to leave it behind.
The transition wasn’t easy, Xavier says, but what he’s building now is much closer to his truth. Everyone Learns Differently provides scholarships to high school seniors in Xavier’s Tacoma, Washington community.
According to Everyone Learns Differently’s website, “Preference will be given to students with learning impairment or disabilities, and/or students who have experienced time in the juvenile justice system, and/or students who struggle in school due to social, personal, or financial challenges.”
But he isn’t stopping there. Xavier plans to expand the scholarship into a full-fledged nonprofit organization. Its mission will incorporate social-emotional learning, mental health, and learning differences, among other things.
And, by sharing his story, Xavier hopes to inspire others to live in their truth. It’s a vulnerable story, but, “I’m not looking to earn anybody’s respect,” he says. “I’m just doing what’s on my heart and what’s on my mind.”
And what’s on his heart and mind is mainstreaming the message that it’s okay to think differently.
We’re so honored that Xavier has chosen to tell his story as the keynote speaker at our back-to-school UDL conference. Join us to hear his inspiring words, along with those of many other experts of Universal Design for Learning.