The UDL Educational Technology Guide 2019-2020: Technology for Special Education

John F. O'Sullivan

Defining UDL Technology

UDL or universal design for learning is regular education’s version of special education. You won't read that in other literature, and if you say that in graduate school, you will be told that is wrong. However, the top people in the field and the special education teachers that have been around for a long time would agree with this assertion. UDL is a regular education initiative that is the exact same thought process of how special education teacher would teach regular education. 

Special education is a desegregation movement. No one is using that big word except for me. Students with disabilities were not allowed in the building until the middle 1970s. Then they were segregated for most of the day in separate classes. It has taken over forty years for special education students to get their primary education in the regular education setting. 

The word segregation sounds inappropriate for someone like me to embraces. I come from money, grew up at the country club, am Caucasian, male and educated. As far as disabilities go what I have would appear mild compared to the larger disability’s community. The word is the correct vocabulary. Most of the students in the self-contained special education classes that I was in the 1970s and 1980s were African-American. I would put the number at 80% to 90% in the district that I was in as a child. You cannot Google this information. There are no articles on this because there was no outrage when this happened, and no one wants to admit this mistake. The high school that I attended was ranked in the 10 and usually in the top 5 in the country by Newsweek in the late 1990s. The top rating guide was not bothered by this fact. I can't tell you what happened in every district in the country when I was eight, but I can say what I saw was not isolated. African-Americans were put into special education and should not have been. This fact is written in the history books. Conveniently, left out is how many, for low long and exactly what type of education they received. Most or almost all students that were put in special education in the early days never got out until they graduated. This makes the problem more severe, then most people understand.

If you do not know the history of the field of education, it is hard to explain why special needs students need to use technology and why it should be done in regular education. Technology gives people with disabilities independence. The term UDL technology is about the inclusion of special needs students in regular education with the independence of technology. It is about combining two very important things. It is paramount that people with disabilities succeed in regular education because we were not always welcomed there. 

In my past books, I think I did not do a good enough job explaining what UDL technology is. UDL stand for universal design for learning. That can be defined as a philosophy. The problem with that is a philosophy can be defined as being black and white. You draw a line, and everything is either UDL or not UDL. Universal design for learning technology is more than that. There is no red line that cannot be crossed or a clear black and white definition. 

To understand this, we have to look at the past to see how we got here. I was one of the first special education students in the modern system of special education. In the 1970s, when I was in special education, nothing resembles what you see today. There was no testing in special education or testing out. They could simply put people in special education. The idea of testing out was not fully formed yet. There were no special education programs based on populations within a public school that came later. There was one special education class for several grades. The idea of teaching the curriculum did not exist yet. Each student had an Individual Education Plan. That means everyone did something different, and that often meant worksheets. Special education students spent much of the day segregated from regular education. 

Fast forward to today, and nothing of those facts are true anymore. Most special education students spend most of their day in regular education classes. Everyone is required to learn the same curriculum. Students with a disability are grouped appropriately based on age and disability. Individual Education Program means accommodations to a curriculum not lack of one. As the special education students moved from a segregated environment to the regular classes, the philosophy of how to teach them has to migrate with them. This took 40 or 50 years to get special education to where it is today.

It is hard to believe it took 20 years to get the basics of special education to work. Then in the late 1990s, I was one of the first inclusion teachers in the country. I was treated like a glorified teacher assistant and told by regular education teachers that I was not a “real teacher.” My story is not isolated. It has taken 20 years to get special education students into the regular classroom. 

When I say the current generation of teachers are the greatest generation of teachers ever, I am no throwing words around. What I see every day at work is nothing short of amazing. Without knowing the past, it is hard to understand just how good things are and how hard people worked to get here. That brings us to the biggest lie ever told in education, “it has always been done this way before.” 

Universal design for learning in the minds of many special education teachers is the regular education version of special education. For me, as someone that was an unwilling part of a forgotten desegregation movement, it is freedom. Special education teachers believe in multisensory teaching with the belief that “whatever works.” Universal design for learning just articulates that in better words than “whatever works.” Technology is the next level of universal design for learning for individuals with disabilities. Technology that includes people or UDL technology sounds better than special or assistive. 

Yes, a number of people have no idea what UDL is. That creates confusion. There is a need to change the vocabulary to help people with disabilities. The biggest problem that I face is special needs students not wanting to use technology because it makes them different. The second biggest problem is the people that don’t know the history of the field and thus do not understand why refusing to use technology is such a huge problem. I want technology to empower and include not to make people different. I spent my life fighting for this. I only wish to look forward. We do not have a technology problem; we have a problem with people understanding why technology needs to be used and to take the time to make it happen. 

How do you get someone to do something that they are not able to do or at least struggle to do well? The answer is technology. If you cannot learn because you cannot read technology can help contain the problem so that it does not affect other areas. UDL technology is about opening doors for people that need help but are unlikely to be able to ask for it. Technology is the biggest change in this century of education. So much is possible with technology that is just not possible without it.

Most special education teachers would not define UDL technology in the same terms that I do. However, technology means opportunities for those in the profession. Parents see technology as a new form of hope for their children with a disability. I believe that UDL technology can bring hope, answers, and success, where there currently is enough to go around. 

The term assistive technology includes a wide range of technology. The new generation of technology is mainstream and used by the masses. Word prediction is on your mobile phone. No one calls an iPhone assistive technology. Word prediction originated as assistive technology. So, are many of the other features that you have on your mobile phone. The technology is being universally used. The technology is on every operating system, and web browser. Most of the people using it do not have disabilities. 

The term UDL technology is separate from assistive technology and from the term universal design for learning. The term encompasses assistive technology and universal design for learning. However, it is not perfectly defined by either. UDL technology includes items that would not perfectly fit under the term assistive technology. Universal design for learning is a philosophy that helps define UDL technology. Universal design for learning is a philosophy, and technology is a tool that can be used to work under a philosophy. However, most people that use UDL technology are not a student in a classroom trying to reach an academic goal based on the concepts of universal design for learning. Every individual that fills out a calendar does not define themselves as a student with an executive function issue. The technology is simply a mainstream tool that helps the masses. UDL Technology is about including special needs students in learning and removing barriers. 

Definition: UDL Technology
Modern technology that is used to help individuals with disabilities and other challenges to function, succeed, perform tasks in various settings, especially academic settings. 

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