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Using Universal Design to Make Learning About Ability, Not Disability

A discussion with Rachel Berger of Microsoft and Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota

Rachel Berger, a Dyslexia & Learning Disabilities Assistive Technologies (AT) Specialist in Minnesota, will be presenting two sessions at the 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC). She’ll present strategies to promote accessibility and inclusion, and to support students who struggle with reading and writing. 

Rachel’s passion for assistive technology and helping children reach their full potential was ignited when her son received a diagnosis of dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia at age five. After her son's diagnoses, she discovered educators frequently don't receive all the tools they need to identify, intervene, or support specific needs. Rachel's approach is one of team collaboration where parents, educators, and community work together, centered around the needs of the child.

In defining accessibility, Rachel finds it's important to understand that not all students are arriving in a classroom at the same level. There are different levels of student support needed with various levels of strengths and weaknesses to discern. "I like to say 'ability' versus 'disability,'" she says. "[It's important] to access the curriculum, to engage in their learning community, to demonstrate subject matter knowledge, and to grow and learn together."

From Rachel's perspective, an ideal classroom environment should have a universal design approach and foundation. "Content might be relayed in diverse ways such as visual, verbal, and written," she says. "There [can] be multiple materials used to engage students such as software, video, art. Students [should] share their learning in diverse ways, such as speaking. Again, maybe some students aren't able to." 

Essentially, it's about enabling students to share learning in different ways, including speaking, writing, and illustrating. The same method of universal design holds for the presentation of materials. It's essential to think ahead and look at a class as an inclusive learning environment for all. Enabling captioning options ahead of time for non-native speakers is an example of such proactive inclusivity. As Rachel points out, it's essential to recognize that various levels of reading comprehension exist within the same classroom at all times:  

"Data shows that the [general education] classroom can have four or more different reading levels within that classroom. Options or consumption of materials are offered to all students, not just those who need it. It's an option of 'Do students have the choice to sight-read or do they have the option to ear-read?' Either way, they're learning, and they're consuming content and comprehending it."

It's a tough balance for educators considering the broad range of learning levels. "Data shows [from] a survey put out recently by Scholastic, including 14,000 educators, that three-quarters of all classrooms have students with special education needs. That's IEP, 504, or some unique level of requirement for accommodations and modifications. Three-quarters of our classrooms have students with reading levels that span four or more grade levels. Three-quarters of our classroom educators report students who are non-native speakers."

It's important to avoid any form of stigmatization that can occur by singling out students with special needs. For that reason, it's imperative to push the idea of total classroom inclusivity that, as Rachel explains, "allows everyone to experience those different modalities of learning."

Rachel will be experiencing FETC for the first time in 2020 and is excited to have the opportunity to present at the conference. She loves sharing with educators, and as she enthusiastically says, "Attending FETC is probably going to be a top first-quarter thing for me."

About Rachel Berger

Rachel is the Executive Director of Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota, a grassroots national advocacy movement and educational advocate for students with learning disabilities. In addition, Rachel works with Microsoft as a dyslexia and learning disability community assistive tech consultant, helping to build awareness and evangelizing the use of assistive technology for students with learning differences to empower them to reach their full educational potential.

Follow Rachel Berger on Twitter @rachelmberger

Rachel Berger's Sessions

  1. Increasing Accessibility and Fostering Inclusive Classrooms With Free Microsoft Learning Tools
  2. Microsoft Learning Tools for Students who Struggle With Reading and Writing

The 40th anniversary Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) will take place January 14-17, 2020 in Miami, Fla. Registration is now open at Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC)

FETC 2020 40th Anniversary

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