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THEORY INTO PRACTICE, 45(4), 311–318

Martha G. Michael
Beverly J. Trezek

Universal Design and Multiple

Literacies: Creating Access
and Ownership for Students
With Disabilities

Given the prevalence of reading and writing diffi- egies and methods of instruction and discuss the
culties among students with disabilities, coupled impact of using universal design as a means of
with the high number of these students accessing providing educational justice for all students.
the general education curriculum and instruction
for the majority of their school day, providing ac-
cess to general education curriculum and grade

level academic content is a challenging task for
ITERACY SKILLS, considered essential for suc-
general and special education teachers alike. In
this article, we explore the concept of universal cess at the secondary level, are particularly
design and multiple literacies as a means of not difficult for students with disabilities to master, as
only providing equal access to general education evidenced by lower scores in nearly every written
curriculum and instructional goals, but also pro- language area measured by norm-referenced tests.
viding opportunity for the development of literate Students with cognitive, processing, sensory, or
thought for all students. We explore the use of both cultural language differences often struggle to ob-
technological- and nontechnological-based strat- tain complex information through the reading pro-
cess and/or struggle to express their knowledge
through writing. These students must be able to
Martha Michael is an Assistant Professor and Director
obtain the same critical and complex information
of Special Education in the Ursuline College Education
Unit. Beverly J. Trezek is an Assistant Professor at the
and share their intellectual insights through other
DePaul University School of Education. means and options, as well as through reading and
Correspondence should be addressed to Martha Mi- writing print text, described here as script literacy
chael, Director of Special Education, Ursuline College, processes (Scherer, 1999).
Education Unit, 2550 Lander Rd., Pepper Pike, OH According to the most recent information avail-
44124. E-mail: able from the National Center for Educational Sta-

Literacies Of and For a Diverse Society

tistics (2005), approximately half of all students disabilities. In our view, literacy as a construct has
6–21 years old with documented disabilities spend an intake or access component, as well as an exter-
80% or more of the school day in the general edu- nal or affective result as public performance, con-
cation classroom. Given the prevalence of read- cluding in a state of epistemic ownership by the
ing difficulties among students with disabilities, learner (Giroux, 1992; Wall & Datillo, 1995).
coupled with the high number of these students- Therefore, by focusing our discussion on the con-
accessing the general education curriculum and cept of universal design and the application of this
instruction for the majority of their school day, concept to differentiating access and performance,
identifying provisions of access for these students we believe that educators can provide educational
to the general education curriculum and grade justice for all students.
level academic content is imperative. Furthermore,
once accessed, opportunities must be provided for
the multidimensional cognitive use of concepts
acquired, or in other words, performance of liter- Universal Design
ate thought.
In an equitable classroom, teachers and stu- The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to
dents regard one another as capable of learning foster comprehension, promote the use of higher
both basic and high-level concepts, and there order thinking skills, and develop literate thought
is equal access to tasks demanding higher order (Olson, 1989; Snow & Dickenson, 1991). Accord-
thinking. Students are not blocked from participa- ing to Paul (2001), literate thought is defined as
tion because they are not ready (Cohen, 1997). A “the ability to think reflectively, logically, ratio-
major premise of the multiliteracies group is that nally, and creatively” (p. 72). It is not, therefore, a
the mission of education is “to ensure all students unidimensional construct, but one that involves
benefit from learning in ways that allow them not only comprehension but also synthesized meta-
to participate fully in public and economic life” cognition recognized in and through performance.
(Cope & Kalantis, 2000, p. 9). We propose that ac- Unfortunately, many students with disabilities are
cessibility of complex information and opportu- unable to develop these abilities because informa-
nity for literate performance for all students is a tion presented in schools, particularly at the sec-
matter of social or, more specifically, educational ondary level, is primarily presented in the form of
justice. Therefore, we believe it is necessary to script literacy. It is proposed that if access to con-
prepare teachers so that they have the ability to cepts at the secondary level is expanded to include
not only ensure equal access to academic content alternative means of acquisition beyond the form
for all students, but equal opportunity for perfor- of script literacy, then more students, especially
mance of higher order thought. those who struggle with reading and writing skills,
We represent a situated cognitive approach to will have the potential to develop comprehension
understanding multiple literacies and use the term and multidimensional metacognitive skills or lit-
to describe alternative means of accessing infor- erate thought.
mation and demonstrating metacognition beyond Universal design is the application of an archi-
the use of traditional forms of reading and writing. tectural concept in which the designers of archi-
While the modes of access and presentation pro- tectural spaces planned and created their products
vide the pathways, the term multiple literacies with all persons in mind, rather than adapting to
denotes the interactive use of language in and personal needs and strengths after the fact. In the
through metacognitive tasks with others, and thus early 1980s, this concept was coined accessible
the situated cognition approach (Lave & Wenger, design (Bauer & Kroeger, 2004, p.44). This con-
1991). From our perspective, the purpose of ex- cept has recently been applied to schools and
panding the definition of literacy is to provide ac- classroom curricula where all students’ needs are
cess to general education curriculum, instruction, taken into account during the curriculum planning
and, ultimately, literate thought for students with stages, to design an egalitarian and accessible con-

Michael and Trezek Universal Design and Multiple Literacies: Creating Access and Ownership for Students

tent delivery system for all learners (Meyer & difficult endeavor. These principles not only add
Rose, 2000). to the richness and effectiveness of teaching criti-
Universal design for learning addresses the de- cal and complex academic content, but provide
sign of curriculum delivery in which students who students with choices about how they learn, how
struggle to gain information through the reading they share what they have learned, and how they
process or who have difficulty writing to express are ultimately assessed (Marzano, 1992; Wall &
their thoughts are provided with alternative means Datillo, 1995). In addition, these principles are re-
to not only assist their labor, but allow expression sponsive to student preference as well as need, and
in a form of preference, consistent with true address the affective domain essential to cognitive
intentionality and ownership (Mastropieri et al., development (Bruner, 1990; Denton, 2005; Given,
2001). Using these alternative means, available 2002).
cognitive energy may be used for higher order This application not only benefits students who
thought, rather than on the script literacy skills have difficulties with content taught in tradition-
some students struggle to apply. In a universal de- al ways, but is also effective with students who
sign learning environment, instructional method- typically do not experience difficulties learning
ology caters to the individual needs and strengths through the traditional methods of primarily read-
of the students at the initial planning stage, rather ing and writing. This means that teacher prepara-
than as afterthoughts. tion programs must include a variety of multiple
The three essential qualities inherent in univer- literacy methods of how to teach content effec-
sal design are representation, expression, and en- tively and flexibly, with the focus not being on
gagement (Orkwis & McLane, 1998). These es- content and content coverage alone. Rather, the
sential qualities can be interpreted to mean (a) focus should be on developing overall meaning
providing authentic or situated language learning and mediating individual student learning by en-
opportunities for students to learn and acquire couraging deep, reflective, and evaluative thought
complex information in a variety of multisensory (Feurenstein, 2000; Reis et al., 1998; Vygotsky,
formats or representations (e.g., Web sites, vid- 1978).
eo, performances, etc.) and through a variety of
means (e.g., discussion, learning in coteaching
settings, reciprocal teaching, reflection, project-
based assignments); (b) providing opportunities Universal Design and Differentiating
for students to express what they know in a variety Access to Content
of multisensory formats and through a variety of
means; and (c) designing the course content to ad- Using universal design learning provides a con-
dress various skill levels, learning style prefer- ceptual framework that may include differentiat-
ences, and interests from the outset (Tomlinson, ing complex content to be acquired and used based
1999, 2001). This, then, levels the playing field in on learning systems, approaches and styles, and
the beginning, so that in the end there is equitable multiple intelligences, as well as varying cogni-
learning, termed equifinality by Chow, Blais, and tive, physical, sensory, motivational, cultural, gen-
Hemingway (1999). der, and language ability levels (Gardner, 1993,
This focus on the use of differentiated instruc- 1999; Given, 2002; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2004).
tional techniques is a crucial ingredient to provid- It is only when employing these concepts as a ba-
ing access for all participants in an authentic and sis for responsive instructional practice that edu-
situated learning environment. In essence, this al- cators can begin to address all students and their
lows students to flourish in terms of performance inherent unique and interacting qualities. Using
as a part of a supportive setting conducive to learn- universal design, general and special educators
ing in the style, mode, and presentation most com- can rely on both technological and nontechno-
fortable to them, and in which they are, or may be- logical strategies and methods to differentiate the
come, most literate, if, in fact, script literacy is a curriculum and instruction for students who typi-

Literacies Of and For a Diverse Society

cally struggle to acquire and synthesize informa- they know or have learned. There are programs
tion using traditional reading and writing activities. that recognize speech, as in the Dragon Speaking
Naturally, version 9.0 (Scansoft, Inc.: Burlington,
ME); or those that give speech feedback and pro-
Technologically Based Strategies
vide word prediction, as in Co: Writer 4000 (Don
and Methods
Jonston, Inc.: Volo, IL). The Kurzweil 3000 (Cam-
Augmenting the curriculum can involve creat- bium Learning Technologies Co.: Bedford, MA)
ing learning experiences or illustrative resources has features for reading, scanning, accessing elec-
to be presented electronically (e.g., graphics with tronic information, and writing. The reading com-
spoken word) and may offer students who are flu- ponent combines audible and visual feedback ref-
ent in reading graphics and listening to text the erence tools. The writing component has a built-in
ability to more effectively gain complex informa- word processor with an audible spell check. Soft-
tion from required text (O’Brien, 2000). Other ex- ware such as Clicker 5 and ClozePro (Crick Soft-
amples of curriculum augmentation that employ ware, Inc.: Redman, WA) and Inspiration (Inspira-
instructional technology include the use of audio- tion Software, Inc.: Beaverton, OR) are designed
cassettes of a given text, videocassettes of related to assist students in writing by including graphic
content, or those that parallel material presented in organizers that organize vocabulary. Talking word
texts and other print materials, such as videos pre- processors can read text from the computer screen
senting information translated in American Sign and enlarged print systems are available for stu-
Language (ASL). dents with visual, as well as reading, disabilities.
Additional instructional technologies that can There are also modality translation services on de-
be utilized with students include hypertext/hyper- mand using wide-area, high bandwidth networks,
media programs that provide learning alternatives and wireless communication technologies making
in nonsequential and nonlinear formats for mas- world information more accessible to all
tering content. In addition, CDs and DVDs can be (O’Brien,1998; Zimmerman, Vanderheiden, &
used for recording activities such as teacher dem- Gilman, 2002).
onstrations in Physical or Biological Science or a
lecture presented in ASL that may be referenced at
Nontechnologically Based Strategies
a later date. The use of digital still or video cam-
and Methods
eras allows students to document fieldwork or a
certain process (e.g., dissection) that can be reor- Universal design techniques do not necessarily
ganized in Web pages, pod cast, or printed and need to rely on technology in order to be success-
added to student permanent products (Lazarus, ful. Graphic texts are a perfect example of a non-
1998). Smart Boards are being used in schools to technological means of melding print and illus-
retain all notes and illustrations presented during tration in all genres of literature that can assist
class instruction that can be distributed to students learners in visualizing textual material. Still an-
after class or at a later date, and/or placed online. other method, based on Socratic dialogue, is recip-
This technology also allows a student to manipu- rocal teaching. This instructional design strategy
late the text and pictures using a touch screen ap- promotes the thinking and evaluation of complex
proach. Finally, Cleveland Public Schools are pro- ideas through inquiry-driven discussions between
viding real time video feeds for virtual field trips. students and teachers and amongst students them-
For example, the high school students in one school selves (Palincsar, Brown, & Campione, 1991). In
witnessed an actual heart surgery being performed using reciprocal interaction, a teacher can rely on
at the Cleveland Clinic with the physician verbal- students’ prior knowledge and experiences to add
izing the procedure and answering questions. a context that emphasizes and incorporates lan-
Alternative methods for inputting information guage development and use (Alexander, 1997).
into computers are also readily available for stu- The curriculum and teaching then focus on mean-
dents who cannot type or write to document what ingful, authentic activities related to students’

Michael and Trezek Universal Design and Multiple Literacies: Creating Access and Ownership for Students

lives, targeting higher level critical thinking skills, This option strengthened and deepened the stu-
and providing a dynamic assessment arena in dent’s interaction with the content of the story and,
which to discern needs and strengths (Ivey, 2000; subsequently, his understanding. We would argue
Sternberg, 1997). that in the translation to visual and artistic media,
Experiential learning opportunities that are the student performed a form of multidimensional
kinesthetic and tactile can also help students retain synthesized thought. Without such an option, this
information for further synthesis through episodic student would not have been able to demonstrate
memory, since many students, particularly those his unique strength and motivation to create. It
with disabilities, are kinesthetic learners (Green- definitely astounded his teachers and classmates,
leaf, 1999, 2002; Jensen, 1998). In addition, stu- and enhanced his status as an individual within the
dents who have difficulty demonstrating knowl- class. This is just one example of utilizing multiple
edge and insight through writing should be literacies at the secondary level to enhance com-
given options for expressing knowledge that are as prehension and foster higher order thinking skills.
equally valued by teachers and peers as are tradi-
tional writing exercises (Levine, 2003). For exam-
ple, students who have acute verbal skills, but have Educational Justice
difficulty writing, need an alert teacher who can
invite them to interview others, contrast and com- The lack of access to script literacy, and there-
pare their answers, make graphs, debate, provide fore the development of literate thought, limits op-
content in recorded news story format for the portunity and keeps those who know from those
class, and so forth. The students can then synthe- who cannot access this knowing, because of this
size their findings in a format that is appropriate to limitation. It is a political and social reality that the
their individual literacy needs and move past mere current educational system is failing a portion
writing. This would augment their learning, visual of the population (Friere, 1970). In the Western
and graphic skills, comprehension, and, ultimate- Hemisphere, educational value emphasizes indi-
ly, literate thought, while at the same time reduc- vidualism and therefore “education must be used
ing the anxiety created during writing-only activi- for individual development and to foster freedom
ties. It would most assuredly affect the perceived from dominance of systems” (Jennings & Purves,
status of an individual both from an external, as 1991, p. 8). The question then arises that if literate
well as an internal, point of view (Cohen, 1997; thought is limited to script literacies by education
Sternberg, 1997). institutionalism, are we not restricting free, cre-
In a classroom at a high school in Ohio, the first ative, and multidimensional thought of those who
author observed another example of an augmented struggle with script literacy? And, what kind of
and differentiated curriculum that addressed the in- talent may be lost through such a restriction?
dividual needs and strengths of a ninth grader who If we want all our students to be able to partici-
had difficulty reading and presenting orally to the pate in all aspects of society, why are some—in
class. In this classroom, the student was given the fact, why are any students—left out of the general
option to create a video, with claymation figures, educational vision of literacy we hold as funda-
depicting The Odyssey, which his class was reading mental to human success and progress? The devel-
in Language Arts. The short video demonstrated opmental psychology model supports the notion
not only the student’s comprehension of material that a student, trapped by chronology, who cannot
and literacy with content, but was translated into ar- read ninth grade material is not ready for ninth
tistic and visual media. Since the student struggled grade; such a model ignores the emotional, cul-
to read and was reluctant to present orally, develop- tural, sensory, social, physical, motivational, and
ing action with created figures and then filming it gender needs and/or strengths of such a young per-
resulted in an excellent short film reflecting his un- son. Our proposition here is to ask how we, as edu-
derstanding of part of the story of Odysseus’ travels cators, can support these students, or any students
and the inner struggle he experienced. in ninth grade for that matter, by augmenting diffi-

Literacies Of and For a Diverse Society

cult and complex textual materials. How can we A paradigm shift is needed to move from
provide an environment conducive to the develop- standardized traditional teaching focused on
ment of metacognition that is not restrictive? This script literacy to teaching that focuses on multi-
can be accomplished through a variety of multi- ple literacies. This shift is necessary for second-
ple literacy presentations that would support and ary educational reform to occur, not only in
differentiate how learning, understanding, and terms of reading and writing, but in terms of
multidimensional synthesized thought occurs for thinking and doing or alternative and multiple lit-
not only the struggling ninth grader, but all ninth eracy performance (Lenz et al., 2005; Simon,
grade students. 2001). Literate thought does not imply that one
Second, how can language learning be more must be able to read well or write well in order
authentic and involve situated practice to engage to think, reason, and contribute information
students in language as a means for development through performance (Gee, 1996, 2001; Kellner,
of literate thought? How can we support students 2001; Paul, 2001). In fact, would we not say that
to develop their metacognitive strengths in authen- the bards of old who traveled and shared their
tic and supportive environments without fear of stories verbally were not literate? Once the sto-
ridicule or loss of status? We know that fear can ries were written down they could be read, but
debilitate and restrict the engagement of students, they had begun as folklore, told from person to
a component essential for universal design (Sousa, person. Would we say that persons with signifi-
2001). Our proposed premise is that there is a need cant visual disabilities are not literate because
to differentiate content for students with limit- they do not read script, but rather decode through
ed script literacy proficiency so that the devel- the symbol system of Braille? Although fluent in
opment of literate thought is not diminished for ASL, should we assume that a person who is
them (Lenz, Ehren, & Deschler, 2005; Marzano, deaf or hard of hearing is not literate because his
Pollock & Pickering, 2001). In addition, using rich and expressive manual language does not
universal design to address multiple literacies, have a parallel written counterpart?
we can strive to provide creative and multiple It is time to reconceptualize the term literacy to
pathway options for access and for expression of include multiple literacies. By employing univer-
knowledge for all students, thus empowering them sal design instructional strategies, we, as educa-
to become active in acquisition and metacognitive tors, can provide equal access to complex curricu-
application (Kuhn & Dean, 2004). lum typically only afforded to those students
who read and write well enough to access the con-
tent and provide demonstration of knowledge and
Conclusion literate thought via these traditional methods.
Through curriculum planning and the use of au-
Differentiating the curriculum is an ardent task, thentic and relevant learning situations, general
especially if undertaken lesson by lesson. It is sug- and special educators can collaboratively develop
gested that teachers differentiate in broader terms instructional methodologies using knowledge
for units, plan curriculum with their colleagues, gained from assessment and student involvement,
and then provide a variety of options within each to structure opportunities for the access and own-
lesson for students to access and use pertinent and ership of multifaceted material, ultimately leading
complex content in multidimensional literate ways. to educational justice for all students, including
Students should also be encouraged to develop those with disabilities.
their own options for learning. At the secondary
level, cooperative and authentic projects and in-
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