Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Assistive Technology vs. UDL

I’ve asked students in a class I’m teaching to identify what they think the difference between Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning is. After a bit of research they all seem to be right on track, but I notice quite often while in the field that not everyone understands this difference and I believe it is important that all educators take the time to learn it.

So, let’s start with a definition of Assisitive Technology from the Tech Act of 1998. It reads that AT refers to any “product, device, or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” It has recently been updated to say that it does not include surgically implanted devices (read: cochlear implants).

Basically this means that any item can be considered AT if it helps increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. An important part of that definition includes the words “individuals with disabilities.” AT must be considered for all children with an IEP. This is the job of the IEP team. This doesn’t mean that AT isn’t useful for students who do not have a disability, but it does mean that it doesn’t have to be considered or allowed for students without an IEP. An example is a text reader. If a student needs a text reader to access the curriculum, it should be noted on his or her IEP in the appropriate place and be made available at all times (including testing). Other students who do not have an IEP may prefer having text read to them as opposed to reading it themselves, but teachers are not required to allow this and many state assessments will not permit it either.

This is a good time to make the leap to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is all about creating a flexible curriculum that provides access for all students. I once heard it put that AT removes barriers for individual students and UDL prevents barriers from being there in the first place. I like this definition. UDL is more of a concept or teaching practice. It’s similar to differentiated instruction and is not something you can touch like AT. UDL has three basic principals:

  1. Multiple Means of Representation – represent information to students in a variety of ways
  2. Multiple Means of Expression – let students express themselves (demonstrate their knowledge) in a variety of ways
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement – choose activities and provide content in a way that engages students in different ways.

I also call UDL good teaching. UDL recognizes that there is no such thing as a “regular” education student and that all of us learn in different ways. So if I am an audible learner, let me listen to the text if that helps (this doesn’t mean forgo teaching reading skills, it is just a way to provide equal access for your students and help engage them). When teaching a lesson, use lecture, video, small group and individual discussion, blogs and interactive websites, etc… When it comes time for your students to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, give them ownership. Let them choose from a variety of options or create their own as long as it demonstrates that they’ve mastered the content.

I could go on about this stuff forever, but for now just know that UDL and AT is not an either/or situation. UDL will help many of your diverse learners gain better access to the curriculum. This may include having what we traditional call assistive technology readily available for any student to use. Other students will still need specific assistive technology, like communication devices, wheelchairs, etc… to help access the curriculum and daily functions. By using UDL and AT together, all students will not only have better access to the curriculum, but will also find learning an engaging process that they will never forget.

I know UDL is a tough concept for some. Knowing the basic principles are one thing, but putting them into practice is another. Therefore I will try and post more UDL strategies and ideas in the future.

About Jason Carroll

Jason has trained thousands on Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning concepts throughout the United States and beyond. His focus is on integrating research based practices into the work he does and helping others ensure that what they are doing works. He specializes in assisting people to bridge the gap between operation of technology and actual implementation. Jason is a published author, has taught Instructional Technology and Universal Design for Learning at the University level, and spends a significant amount of time on e-Learning and blended learning initiatives. He is a graduate of the Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) from California State University at Northridge and holds a Masters in Business Administration. Currently Jason serves as Product Marketing Manager for North America at Texthelp Inc. where he oversees new product launches and speaks nationally on a variety of Assistive Technology topics.

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