Universal Design: Instruction for students with learning disabilities

by Amanda Kastrinos

Amanda Kastrinos

Amanda Kastrinos

The goal of any successful instructor is to teach the course in a way all students will understand. But how can college teachers plan instruction for students with special needs, specifically students with learning disabilities?

With the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act, teachers are required to make necessary accommodations to any student with a learning disability.

As the law states, “No otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity”  (Section 504).

Some of these accommodations could include providing a note-taker, preferential seating, additional time on tests and assignments, providing copies of lesson plans and assignments, or allowing video or audio recording of lectures.

So how many students may be registered with the disability resource center and need accommodations. The University of Florida had almost 50,000 students in 2015, and from July to December 2015, UF’s Disability Resource Center reported seeing 7,262 students and proctoring 3,668 exams for students who needed extra time or a distraction-free environment.

Not all students who may qualify for having accommodations may request accommodations. College students with learning disabilities have often successfully managed their disability throughout their entire academic life, and often do not need accommodations or even register with their university’s Disability Resource Center counterpart.

In 2009, Richard Sparks and Benjamin Lovett reviewed 400 studies looking at college students with learning disabilities. They found that on average, learning disabled (LD) students performed within the average range for the population as a whole. So it’s possible that you may have LD students in your class without ever knowing.

Universal Design aids students with learning disabilities

In order to teach to these students and the rest of your class, researchers Joan M. McGuire, Sally S. Scott and Stan F. Shaw applied the principles of Universal Design (UD) to teaching LD students. These nine guidelines are intended to reduce LD students’ reliance on accommodations while improving instruction for students at all levels.

1.     Equitable Use – Instruction should be accessible and available to all students, no matter their ability. I believe this principle is especially important for online students, as instructors should make sure students have the same access to resources whether or not they are on campus. Scott, McGuire and Shaw advise using online courseware, like Canvas, to make materials available to everyone.

2.     Flexibility in Use – Because students learn in different ways (i.e. visual, audio, kinesthetic), instructors should use a variety of activities to get their message across. These methods could include group projects, visual aides, incorporating stories and discussions that tailor to different ways of learning.

3.     Simple and Intuitive Instruction –  Instruction should be straightforward and predictable, regardless of student’s experience, knowledge, language or ability to concentrate. Teachers should try to eliminate unnecessary complexity whenever possible. One example would be making performance expectations known for important assignments by providing a rubric or grading scheme.

4.     Perceptible Information – Information should be communicated effectively, regardless of students’ sensory abilities. One way instructors can do this is by choosing a textbook that can be downloaded as an e-textbook so students with sensory impairments can use a screen reader or text enlarger.

5.     Tolerance for Error – Instructors need to anticipate that all students will not learn at the same place or enter the class with the same level of knowledge and skills. Scott, McGuire and Shaw suggest combatting this by dividing long-term projects into manageable pieces, where students can receive feedback on individual assignments before turning in the final product.

6.     Low Physical Effort – Unless physical effort is necessary to the content of your course (i.e. physical education or personal training), minimize nonessential effort to maximize attention to learning. For example, you may allow students to type answers to an essay question on a test instead of writing answers by hand.

7.     Size and Space for Approach and Use – Instruction should be designed for all students, regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility and communication needs. While this is certainly important for any students with physical disabilities, this tenet can be helpful for students with attention disorders as well. The authors discuss students who may have hard time focusing on other classmates during a class discussion. They suggest arranging the class in a circular seating so students with attention problems can face the person who is speaking and stay focused.

8.     A Community of Learners – As instructors, we should be creating an environment that promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and the instructor. This principle is important for online students who don’t get the benefit of talking with their classmates face to face. Instructors can create study groups and discussion groups, email lists and chat rooms for online students to communicate.

9.      Instructional Climate – To accommodate students of all levels, instructors need to create a classroom environment that is welcoming and inclusive, both with their words and actions and by guiding the words and actions of students. The authors suggest including a statement in your syllabus emphasizing your expectation for students to respect diversity and be tolerant in your classroom. Instructors should also include a statement urging students to come to them and their institutions’ DRC with any special learning needs.

Some of these guidelines are likely teaching strategies you are already doing or in your teaching, as those strategies improve the learning experience for all students. The purpose of making such adjustments to classroom activities and course assignments — along with the disability accommodations discussed earlier — is not to lower the standard of your class for students with special learning needs. Those modifications are designed to elevate all students to meet the high standard of academic performance for your class and your institution.

UF’s Disability Resource Center has detailed and helpful resources for navigating your interactions with students with learning disabilities. You can find specifics about the process, as well as learn how to make any accommodations your students may ask for.

This fact sheet by the Learning Disabilities Association of America explains in more detail the legal issues surrounding college students with LD and the responsibilities of students, faculty and a university’s disability services office.


Hua, C. B. (2002). Career Self-Efficacy of the Student Who Is Gifted/Learning Disabled: A Case Study. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 24(4), 375-404. Retrieved March 21, 2016.

Shaw, S. F., Scott, S. S., & McGuire, J. M. (2001). Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities. Principles of Universal Design for Instruction. Retrieved March 21, 2016.

Sparks, R. L., & Lovett, B. J. (2009). College Students With Learning Disability Diagnoses: Who Are They and How Do They Perform? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(6), 494-510.

Amanda Kastrinos is a doctoral student at the University of Florida and a health communications researcher. She wrote this post when she was a master’s student taking Mass Communication Teaching. You can follow her on Twitter — @MandiLKastrinos

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