Published on March 19th, 2015


Universal Design for Learning: What Is It and What Is the Value Added for the School-Based S-LP?

By Wenonah Campbell, PhD and Robin Gaines, PhD, S-LP(C), CCC-SLP

Does this sound familiar to you? You have been offering consultative services to the teachers of several students on your caseload. Recently, one teacher shared her concern that the suggestions you are making for the classroom are typically for only one student and she is worried about how to support him when she also has to teach the other 27 students in her class. You know this class also includes a student with autism, two with ADHD and three English language learners. You recognize that her concerns are legitimate; one-off recommendations for a single student are a hard sell. You also recognize that many of your suggestions would likely benefit the other children in her class AND that you made similar suggestions to this teacher last year — only for a different student. You wonder if there is a way to leverage your collaboration so that you and the teacher both feel your needs are being met, while at the same time you achieve your goal to help this teacher make lasting changes in the classroom that will support students with speech, language and communication needs.

If this scenario rings true for you, then you will want to keep reading. In this post, we will introduce you to an initiative in education that is gaining momentum among the speech-language community as a framework for collaborating with educators:[i],[ii],[iii],[iv], [v] Universal Design for Learning, or UDL for short.

“Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST, 2012).”

UDL is a term that has its origins in the universal design movement in architecture.[iv] When architects were first asked to make buildings physically accessible, they quickly realized that it is much more time-consuming and costly to add features such as ramps and elevators after-the-fact than it is to include those features into the building design at the outset.[ii] Indeed, it is thanks to the universal design movement in architecture that we now all benefit from environmental enhancements like curb cuts, automatic doors and closed-captioned video, just to name a few.

In education, this movement was paralleled in the advent of UDL — a recognition that static, inflexible curricula and teaching practices limit the accessibility of content to anyone other than the “typical” learner. UDL also recognizes that teachers were making one-off modifications over and over again for any number of students who might vary in their physical, cognitive, behavioural, learning and communication abilities.[i] In other words, just as in architecture, this retrofitting appeared to be prohibitively time-consuming and costly to both educators and students. Accordingly, UDL flips the onus from needing to make students “fit” a particular curriculum to instead fixing the curriculum to fit the needs of all.[iv, v]

Over a number of years, researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) have developed a set of evidence-informed guidelines that encourage educators to think about building flexibility into their curriculum at the outset by providing variation in how information is presented to students, how students are assessed or asked to demonstrate their knowledge, and how they are engaged in the learning process.[ii] By using these evidence-based principles[iii], educators can remove barriers to the curriculum and enhance inclusion of students with a range of (dis)abilities.

Speech-language pathologists (S-LPs) are not experts in curricular content; however, we know a great deal about the aspects of the curriculum and instruction that are likely to be barriers for students with speech, language and communication needs.[iv] Indeed, several recent publications describe in detail the role that S-LPs might take in collaborating with educators to implement UDL as a classroom-based service.[iii,iv,v] For example, Ralabate and colleagues[iii] provide several examples of whole class strategies that could be applied collaboratively by educators and S-LPs using UDL as a framework. Some of these strategies involve the use of technology, such as using captioned videos to link visual and written information, or text-to-speech software to link written information with auditory information. Other strategies may be low-tech, such as pairing visual images with verbal or written directions. In any case, the goal is to ensure that students can access the information in multiple ways. Similarly, the S-LP and teacher may decide that students can demonstrate their learning of curricular concepts by drawing, making an oral presentation, providing a written product or producing a multimedia presentation. Again, the goal is to allow for diversity in how students show what they know.

At this point, you may be questioning if UDL is any different than what you already do when you make suggestions to teachers. And the answer is an emphatic yes. But why? Because when using UDL, your role is to actively work with the teacher to build a lesson or instructional approach that will have the flexibility to meet a whole range of needs – some of those needs will correspond to the needs of students on your caseload and some of those needs may be for students who are outside your caseload but may require support nonetheless. What you may gain by using a broader UDL lens is enhanced “buy-in” from the teacher, when he or she understands that you are not asking for a lesson adjustment for just one child, just one time. Instead, you are helping to create a flexible approach to instruction and assessment that will last long after your work together is finished — an approach that he or she can use with all students. What you may also gain is an increased likelihood that your recommendations will be implemented because they dovetail with the needs of the teacher and the realities of the classroom.[v] Indeed, emerging research into S-LP involvement in the implementation of interventions founded on the principles of UDL has demonstrated promising outcomes for changing educators’ instructional practice and enhancing student outcomes.[vi]

So now that you know a little more about UDL, what’s next? There are several excellent resources available online that can enhance your knowledge about UDL. We hope that you will check them out!

Stay tuned for our next post on tips for collaborating with educators.

For more about UDL, please visit:


i American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2014). Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved October 28, 2014 from
ii Campbell, W.N. & Skarakis-Doyle, E. (2007). School-aged children with SLI: The ICF as a framework for collaborative service delivery. Journal of Communication Disorders, 40, 513-535.
iii Ralabate, P.K., Currie-Rubin, R., Boucher, A., & Bartecchi, J. (2014). Collaborative planning using universal design for learning. ASHA SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, 15, 26-31. doi:10.1044/sbi15.1.26.

iv Ralabate, P.K. (2011). Universal design for learning: Meeting the needs of all students. The ASHA Leader, 16 (10), 14-17.

v Staskowski, M., Hardin, S., Klein, M., & Wozniak, C. (2012). Universal design for learning: Speech-language pathologists and their teams making the Common Core curriculum accessible. Seminars in Speech and Language, 33, 111-129.

vi Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Providing new access to the general curriculum: Universal design for learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35, 8-17.

vii Center for Applied Special Technology. (2012). What is UDL? Retrieved October 28, 2014 from

viii Center for Applied Special Technology. (2011). UDL Guidelines - Version 2.0: Research Evidence. Retrieved October 28, 2014 from

ix American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2010). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists in schools [Professional Issues Statement]. Retrieved October 28, 2014 from

x Scott, B.J., Vitale, M.R., & Masten, W.G. (1998). Implementing instructional adaptations for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms: A literature review. Remedial and Special Educaion, 19, 106-119.

xi Starling, J., Munro, N., Togher, L., & Arciulia, A. (2012). Training secondary school teachers in instructional language modification techniques to support adolescents with language impairment: A randomized controlled trial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43, 474–495.

About the authors:

Wenonah Campbell

Wenonah Campbell, PhD, is an assistant professor in the school of rehabilitation science at McMaster University and an associate with CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research. Her current research focuses on evaluating and implementing school-based models of collaborative service delivery as well as on enhancing the capacity of health professionals to engage in collaborative practice.

Robin Gaines_Portrait

Robin Gaines, PhD, S-LP(C), CCC-SLP, Reg. CASLPO, is a clinical researcher with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, University of Ottawa and a clinical speech-language pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Robin and her colleagues at the First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program present the Parent Education program as part of their clinical service to families.

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