While differentiating instruction and being able to design lessons geared towards the needs of diverse learners are currently highly prized skills for teachers, this has not always been the case. The history of education in the United States is a history of segregation. Even today, schools and curriculum are designed to meet the needs of a core group of students, which does not include students with disabilities (Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2002). In the past, learners who were different, out of the mainstream, or did not fit into the mold to which teachers taught (were not part of the core) learned how or lost out on learning. This is not to say that teachers of the past did not care about their students, about being effective teachers, or about student learning. However, as schools are mirrors reflecting mainstream societal norms (Chartock, 2010; Delpit, 2006)—and, given that our society has not always valued diversity in people, be it due to disability, class, culture, or race—teachers in the past have largely focused their efforts where they could earn the largest return on their investment: the average student .
However, through the passage of legislation, decisions handed down from courts, and a shift in societal mores, it is clear that such an approach will no longer be allowed. Education today is an institution that must meet the needs of all learners without exception. In response to this new belief structure, teachers have two choices: adapt the lessons they plan to meet these needs, or design the lessons universally from the start. The former approach is common, but proponents of universal design for learning hope that will change as acceptance of the latter grows. These proponents argue that universal design (which is represented by the latter approach) offers a more effective means with which to teach students from diverse backgrounds, particularly those with disabilities. I would add that universal design for learning principles also would be beneficial to non-disabled learners. All students have unique learning needs and will benefit from the additional flexibility inherent in universal designs.
Universal design is an architectural concept which posits that accessibility for all people should be planned from the outset. That is, the very blueprint for things should consider the needs of all people. This is in contrast to the traditional method where buildings were designed and then later had to be retrofitted to be made accessible. It is “based on the assumption that disabled people are numerous and should be able to lead regular lives” (Hehir, 2009, p. 88) and “calls for designing buildings, technologies, and services in ways that assume the need to provide access for people with disabilities” (Hehir, 2009, p. 11).
In education, universal design has been applied to effectively manage the education process for students with disabilities. Much like in architecture, the idea is to design learning in such...