To gain meaningful access to the general education curriculum, students with disabilities must overcome the substantial barriers to learning imposed the by the printed materials they are asked to read. Textbooks, workbooks, instruction manuals, novels, short stories, essays, reference books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and worksheets, all present difficulties to readers challenged by text and these differences can impede or prevent students with disabilities from learning. Technology can assist with such difficulties by enabling a shift from printed text to electronic text.
Students with disabilities frequently experience insufficient access to and success in the general education curriculum. This is especially true for adolescent learners where even non disabled students struggle due to the emphasis on learning from text (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Kamil, 2003). Furthermore, students’ abilities to learn from text are often at odds with the highly stimulating multimedia world they live in, resulting in a rejection of the literacy skills of the past before acquiring the “new literacies” of the future (Bruce, 2004; Leu, 2002).
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been proposed as a model for improving student access to the general education curriculum by “identifying and removing barriers from our teaching methods and curriculum materials” (Rose and Meyer, 2002, p.69). Basic assumptions of UDL are that students bring different needs and skills to the task of learning and so the learning environment should be designed to both accommodate to and take advantage of these differences (Bowe 2000; Orkwis & McLane, 1998; Rose & Meyer, 2002). CAST’s UDL model proposes three major principles leading to recommendations for teaching and assessment that promote increased access to the general curriculum for all learners, including learners with disabilities: (a) Flexibility in Presentation – presenting information in multiple formats and using multiple media; (b) Flexibility in Expression – providing multiple ways for students to show what they have learned; and (c) Flexibility in Engagement – providing multiple ways to engage student interest and motivate learning (Rose & Meyer, 2002).
For students with disabilities, supported electronic text can play a role in addressing all three principles of UDL. First, supported e-text can provide reading materials in alternative formats that can be customized to match individual learner’s needs. By enhancing electronic text with supportive resources, the instructional situation can be structured in ways that scaffold learning and increase both physical and cognitive access. Second, supported e-text can be used to foster new modes of expression, capitalizing on the capacity of electronic text to be revised during production and enhanced with multimedia. And third, supported e-text can appear within highly motivating simulations, game-based instruction, and even virtual reality.
The three principles lead to “one common recommendation: to provide students with a wider variety of options” (Rose & Meyer, 2002, p. 74.) Unfortunately access to a wider variety of options is not always a sufficient condition for learning, especially for students with disabilities. The options need to be the right options for the learners involved. For example, if the material to be learned is presented in a variety of ways using a variety of media, but they all require sight, then having multiple options is of no assistance to someone who is blind. At a more microscopic level, if a picture is used to illustrate a concept but it is not the right picture and results in student failure to focus on the critical elements, then having a picture does not lead to better learning than not having a picture, and may even lead to misconceptions about the concept in question.
Further, the options need to be aligned with achieving the desired curriculum goals, which in turn need to be aligned with the state or national standards guiding the curriculum. Having multiple options for engaging the content might lead to more motivated learners, but if their choices lead to learning that is not aligned with the state’s assessment measures, then having those options will not lead to improved performance on statewide achievement tests. In today’s world of high stakes testing, teachers cannot afford to engage students in learning that is not directed toward the outcomes on which they will be assessed.
And finally, students need to know how to take advantage of the options available and recognize the value in using them to enhance their learning. This is not as easy as it may sound. For example, many students with disabilities are not strategic learners. They have only a vague notion of what it means to read well or how to improve their reading performance. Thus even when provided with embedded resources in an electronic reading environment, they are not likely to take advantage of the assistance unless specifically taught to do so (Horney & Anderson-Inman, 1995) and even then it is questionable whether that will transfer to increased use of the resources when not under direct teacher guidance.