An Interview with Kathleen Sadao and Nancy Robinson: Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology: What Do They Have in Common?

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Kathleen Sadao and Nancy Robinson are the co-authors of “Assistive Technology for Young Children: Creating Inclusive Learning Environments,” from Brookes Publishing. In this interview, they respond to questions about assistive technology and inclusive learning environments.

  1. First of all, could you briefly describe this thing called “Universal Design for Learning” and its component parts?

There are two websites that we use as a resource for defining both UDL and AT. The National Early Childhood Technical assistance center is an Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded organization that provides training and technical assistances to States focused on early childhood special education ( Their definition of UDL follows.

“Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching, learning, curriculum development and assessment that uses new technologies to respond to a variety of individual learner differences. IDEA 2004 defines Universal design using the same definition as the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 3002. (34CFR§ 300.44): ‘The term `universal design’ means a concept or philosophy for designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities, which include products and services that are directly accessible (without requiring assistive technologies) and products and services that are interoperable with assistive technologies.”

The second national organization that we want to highlight is the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) . CAST has been in operation for more than twenty-five years and has developed a model for UDL based on three components; how information is represented, how students organize and express their knowledge, and what engages them to do so. The model parallels a universal design initiative in architecture. The basic premise to the principles of UD is considering access to buildings for all individuals at the beginning of the design phase that allows everyone full participation. One of the most familiar examples has been the creation of ramps to enter buildings. All people can enter the building via a ramp; some people can enter the same building using a set of stairs. Providing a design element that works for all, avoids having to respond to individual needs later. Similarly, UDL considers the development of the curriculum and accompanying teaching resources to be flexible in order for teachers to be able to use various approaches to implement the curriculum with a wide diversity of learner characteristics. UDL directs the focus of the problem on the curriculum and not the learner. Changes to the curriculum and methods open up opportunities for learners to have increased access to the information being presented.

CAST has compiled nine guidelines to consider when implementing a UDL framework for the classroom that are available on the National Center for UDL website, .

  1. Now, we all have a vague idea about “assistive technology” but please give us your definition.

The AT ACT first defined AT in 1988 as:

“any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” (

During the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004 in 1997, AT was added and the definition corresponded to the one used in the AT Act. The law added a clause about AT services that include an evaluation and determination of AT needs based on the individual student outcomes presented in the Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA 2004 also clarified that AT does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted.

  1. In your minds- what exactly DO they have in common?

As we discussed in our May 18th PresenceLearning webinar, UDL and AT:

  • IDEA 2004 reinforces applying UDL with students with disabilities in general education settings.
  • The law requires access to the context in which instruction is presented and promotes active engagement with the curriculum.
  • UDL has the potential to augment IDEA 2004 to eliminate barriers to learning through a proactive process.
  • UDL offers a window for AT to be part of the initial planning and design of learning settings.

Under the UDL guidelines AT tools provide options for expanding the ways that information is presented to students such as depicting concepts through visual supports and graphics. AT tools offer students who may not be able to use traditional methods of expression to voice responses through a voice output device or iPad app. Thirdly, AT options provide adjustments to the curriculum such as an interactive smart board with animation or a software program for practice of concepts learned during the lesson that spark students interest and in turn their motivation for acquiring skills that may be challenging for them.

  1. Now, you have done a recent webinar- what was its main focus?

The main focus of the webinar was to provide an introduction to UDL concepts and AT resources in order for participants to increase their understanding of the approaches. Additionally, we encouraged participants to consider next steps to infuse UDL into their respective programs and classrooms. We also wanted participants to reflect on opportunities in their own locales to create planning teams and partnerships between general education staff and special education to create classroom AT toolkits that can easily be accessed by a wide variety of learners. Our book provides additional resources for creating toolkits specific to particular curricular areas such as literacy and learning.

  1. I think many educators feel that if we focus on early childhood, that various other problems in the special ed realm would not occur – your views?

The research has been definitive about pinpointing the years between birth to five as the critical years that offer a gateway to a child’s later success. As early childhood educators, we believe in exposing young children to the plethora of experiences that surround us. By offering young children access to learning opportunities through play and learning environments, we engage them in problem solving and the development of thinking skills during their formative years. This is particularly important for a child with a disability who may not have typical access to play and learning environments. AT can provide a bridge for young children to explore language, socialization, and preacademic skills during the formative years. Oftentimes when a young child has difficulty with communication or physical development, many wonderful learning opportunities are lost.

  1. Many Head Start and pre- school teachers are the first to notice speech and language delays and disorders- what does “Universal Design for Learning” do to help?

UDL provides a way of thinking about access for all children prior to their entering the classroom. Teachers can rearrange their classroom environment to create learning centers that are more conducive to children’s interests and learning needs. For instance, a literacy center with some books and a bean bag chair can be reconfigured with page turners on every book to increase the likelihood that a child with a physical disability will be able to turn the pages. Additionally, partnering with the special educator early on during the planning stages of their classroom activities and teaching methodologies assures that modifications can be built into the curriculum early on. When concerns arise about particular children’s progress, the UDL approach already has aligned the general education and special education staff to work together to make further adjustments to the curriculum and consider more formal evaluation processes after other modifications have been tried. Without a UDL framework, general education teachers may notice problems but not be sure what the next step might be.

  1. Now, we often hear in the news about six year old children being taken from the schools in handcuffs by police – what does this say about the lack of training in terms of behavioral intervention?

We have not heard of this occurrence but it you are referring to students being removed from the classroom due to behavioral issues, we might be able to comment on that aspect of the question. There is a national training effort focused on a pyramid model for creating accepting and positive learning environments called the Center on Social/Emotional Foundations of Learning out of Vanderbilt University. Many states including California have begun initiatives to train early childhood educators on how to modify their learning environments and discipline approaches to be more proactive and less intrusive by beginning with a positive classroom atmosphere that promotes acceptance of difference and teaches strategies for dealing with conflicts and successfully participating in classroom routines.

  1. Can you give us some examples as to how AT tools can provide access to the general education curriculum for students?

Our webinar contained many examples of toolkit items teachers can use in the classroom to support learning. We mentioned the page-turners for literacy. Another example for modifying text is to use highlighter tape to cover the important concepts in a story that you want the child to focus on. If the text and/or pictures are too busy on a page, you can use white labels to block out portions of text. Another approach is to offer alternative forms of text such as text to speech, books on tape, or literacy apps for the iPad or android tablet. For writing, a simple solution for increasing the grip size on a pencil is to stick a Styrofoam ball on the pencil. Touch screens, adapted keyboards and interactive white boards along with blue tooth capacity for simple switches that act as a computer mouse increase access to computers. Apple products come with built in accessibility features such as increased font size. Our book has a multitude of ideas and product suggestions for more information.

  1. Can you and help our readers understand the roles of the special educator in promoting the application of “AT toolkits?”

We discuss this in-depth in out book. We also mentioned it during the webinar. The special educator brings a wealth of knowledge about adaptations and modifications that can enhance the already existing learning environment. Special educators are partnering with general educators to explore ways to modify the curriculum and provide toolkit supports to the classroom. Special educators start with what the classroom teacher has designed and offer additional modifications as appropriate.

  1. What exactly do you mean by “AT Toolkits?”

As we discussed in our webinar the purpose of an AT toolkit is to put AT and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools in the hands of practitioner teams in order to improve the process of addressing and selecting the most appropriate technology systems for individuals with disabilities (Sadao & Robinson, 2010) The AT toolkit is based on the need to have AT tools readily available for students during classroom routines and activities. The book provides very specific examples of toolkit items for communication, literacy, play, and computers.

  1. In terms of the early childhood curriculum and pedagogy, what kinds of things does the typical teacher need for curriculum support?

Typically, teachers need training on teaching methodologies, organizing the classroom, adapting pedagogy to support a variety of learner characteristics, observation skills, data collection, team building skills, classroom management, etc.

  1. Expressive and receptive language skills are obviously imperative, but are somewhat overlooked in lieu of letters, numbers, colors, shapes, forms etc. How does this Universal Design for Learning address this gap? Or do you not see a gap?

Language development provides the underpinning for learning in all aspects of school curricula and social interaction for students in the developmental years. Often, children with developmental delays that are due to a range of biological or environmental risk factors, experience gaps in language development. The educational team, in particular the speech-language pathologist, has responsibility to determine the gaps in language development for individual children. Through careful assessment, intervention can then be implemented to address the need to build oral language skills in the areas of vocabulary, sentence and narrative development that will support academic success. UDL principles and strategies are uniquely fitted to support the language development needs and gaps with those children who require alternative and supportive means of education. Specifically, UDL principles address the need for multiple means of expression and action through alternative representations of language throughout the classroom. The combination of individualized intervention to address gaps in language development and the attention to UDL strategies to represent language visually throughout the classroom environment are complimentary methods to enable students to access language tools they need.

  1. What kind of training does the typical, say Head Start or kindergarten teacher need in terms of assistive technology?

WE have developed training modules that provide a series of several days of learning about AT. The format usually includes an overview, a focus on literacy adaptations, communication supports, and computer station modifications. The teacher needs to be aware of how to make modifications to the curriculum and the classroom environment by the use of AT toolkits.

  1. We seem to be seeing a gargantuan increase in children with autism- how is this going to impact early childhood education and what modifications in Universal Design for Learning are going to be needed?

Again, UDL allows for planning to meet the needs of all learners at the beginning of the process. By taking a proactive stance to curricular design and classroom environments, teachers will be able to adjust their curriculum as the needs of diverse learners arise in their classrooms. We know that children with autism typically have additional needs in the area of communication and socialization. Providing toolkit items to support various modes of expression and organizing the classroom environment with visual supports such as labeling centers and daily schedules with picture cues helps to assure adaptations have been made to encourage access and participation.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

The advent of the iPad has revolutionized the opportunities for using a tool designed for the general populous for supporting students with disabilities. There are many apps designed now with children with disabilities in mind for enhancing the development of communication and learning skills. The intuitive nature of the iPad and other tablets fits UDL principles as reviewed during our webinar. The iPad provides a vehicle for presenting information in different ways that allows for multiple response modes. In addition, the iPad is very motivating and fun to use. In a study at University of Kansas recently, young children with cortical vision impairments tested out the iPad and were found to have more attention to the task and were highly motivated by the screen colors and interactivity. The advent of the iPad has taken education by storm and offers yet one other technology tool that can streamline accommodations to the curriculum with a low cost methodology available in the general education arena.

Besides the wealth of resources at NECTAC and CAST, there is also a very informative article on UDL and ECE that you might want to check out.

Conn-Powers, et al. The UDL of Early Education: Moving Forward for All Children. Beyond the Journal, Young Children on the Web. September 2006 available at:

About Kathleen C. Sadao, Ed.D.

Kathleen Curry Sadao, Ed.D., is a program specialist with the Supporting Early Education Delivery Systems (SEEDS) Project, in the Sacramento County Office of Education. She completed a master’s degree in special education at Chico State University and a doctorate in educational leadership at University of Hawaii at Manoa. For the last seven years, her work includes developing training materials and facilitating a state-level assistive technology work group creating web-based AT training products. Dr. Sadao has been in the field of early childhood special education for more than 25 years. She has traveled the Pacific Islands providing training and technical assistance to newly developed ECSE programs as a Head Start Technical Assistance consultant and later a National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center coordinator. Upon returning to California in 1997 she has worked as a professor of Special Education at University of the Pacific and a district level special education administrator. Currently Dr. Sadao and her SEEDS Workgroup on Early Education Technology (SWEET) team have been field-testing AT training modules around the state of California.

About Nancy B. Robinson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Dr. Robinson completed her master’s degree in speech and hearing sciences at Portland State University and Ph.D. in special education at the University of Washington. Her areas of teaching, clinical practice, and research include augmentative and alternative communication (AAC); early intervention; collaborative team development; family support; and interagency systems development in remote rural areas, particularly in the Pacific Islands when she was based at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa between 1986-1998. Since 1998, Dr. Robinson has been with the California State University system at Chico State and San Francisco State University where she is currently. In 2007, she received the CSHA District 1 Outstanding Achievement Award for her clinical service, teaching in communicative sciences and disorders, research and publication, administrative service, and service to CSHA. Dr. Robinson co-directs a four-year federal grant with Dr. Gloria Soto to support specialized graduate study in AAC, Project CLLASS (Collaborating for Language, Literacy and Augmentative Systems in Schools).

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About Michael Shaughnessy EducationViews Senior Columnist

Dr. Shaughnessy Eastern New Mexico University Portales, New Mexico is currently Professor in Educational Studies and is a Consulting Editor for Gifted Education International and Educational Psychology Review. In addition, he writes for and the International Journal of Theory and Research in Education. He has taught students with mental retardation, learning disabilities and gifted. He is on the Governor’s Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Council and the Gifted Education Advisory Board in New Mexico. He is also a school psychologist and conducts in-services and workshops on various topics.

An Interview with Kathleen Sadao and Nancy Robinson: Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology: What Do They Have in Common? | Education News.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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