Across all industries, there is a growing awareness that diversity matters and is a competitive differentiator. As organizations realize the value of a diverse workforce, they begin implementing a variety of diversity initiatives.

The majority of these initiatives address inequities in gender and ethnic diversity, which are the most visible and easily tracked workplace diversities. However, there are many other components of diversity. The increasingly diverse global workplace present learning and development professionals with unique challenges in designing learning for employees with various learning abilities.

DEFINING LEARNING DISABILITIES

“Learning disabilities” is an umbrella term that describes a number of specific learning problems. Learning disabilities do not diminish overall ability but cause difficulty learning and processing certain kinds of information or in particular ways. People with learning disabilities are not lazy and are just as intelligent as anyone else; their brains are just wired differently. They deserve opportunities to be taught in ways that are tailored to how their brains receive and process information.

The most common types of learning disabilities involve problems with reading, writing, math reasoning, listening or speaking. Other disorders may also make learning difficult. For example, ADHD and autism may co-occur with learning disabilities, so they are often confused with learning disabilities. ADHD (attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder) is a brain-based disorder that results in significant inattention, hyperactivity, distractibility or a combination of these characteristics. People with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty with communication, reading body language, making friends and making eye contact.

ADULTS AND LEARNING DISABILITIES

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population, or an estimated 1 billion people, live with disabilities. “Learning disabilities” is a term often heard in a school-based setting. However, the need for awareness and management of learning disabilities does not end when students graduate: Approximately 470 million people with learning disabilities are of working age, and learning disabilities require ongoing support and management in many areas of adult life.

People with disabilities experience common patterns of discrimination, such as high unemployment, prejudice about their productivity and lack of access in the workplace environment. Yet organizations that hire employees with disabilities report that those employees have better retention rates, lower absentee rates and a high motivation to prove themselves.

Learning disabilities are invisible disabilities, with the majority of employees choosing not to disclose their disability to their employer. Only 19 percent of young adults with a learning disability report that their employers are aware of their disability, and only 5 percent report that they are receiving accommodations in the workplace.

As the pressure mounts for organizations to hire more diverse employees, and with many laws and regulations underway seeking to improve employment of adults with disabilities, the percentage of workers with invisible disabilities will continue to grow. Curriculum designers need a framework to use that can aid in increasing the accessibility and flexibility of training for all types of learners.

WHAT IS UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING?

Universal design is the design of products, environments and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. Universal design had its beginnings in the architectural field. Examples of universal design include the curb cut originally designed to help wheelchair users, which turned out to be helpful for parents with strollers, rollerbladers and travelers with wheeled suitcases as well.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a method for addressing learner variability by providing flexible, customizable designs with the goal of giving all individuals (with and without disabilities) equal opportunities to learn. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 provided the following definition of UDL:

The term “universal design for learning” means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that –

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

Just like universal design in architecture, UDL applies the tenets of equal access, flexibility, simplicity and efficiency to the process of learning. Anne Meyer and David Rose developed the principles of UDL using cognitive science research. These three principles are based on the theory that individuals receive and interpret information through three primary neural networks:

  • Recognition Network – Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation (the “what” of learning), allowing individuals to see, identify and recognize patterns.
  • Strategic Network – Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression (the “how” of learning), enabling individuals to set goals, develop plans and act on these approaches.
  • Affective Network – Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning), allowing individuals to determine which patterns are important.

From the three principles, nine guidelines were developed, creating the foundation of UDL. The principles and guidelines provide educators and curriculum developers a framework for minimizing barriers to student learning by incorporating alternatives into instructional materials, methods and assessment. Table 1 presents just a few implementation guidelines for each of the three principles.

Table 1. Implementation Guidelines
Multiple Means of RepresentationMultiple Means of Action and ExpressionMultiple Means of Engagement
  • Provide simple and consistent navigation.
  • Provide the same information through different modalities.
  • Provide information that will allow for adjustability by the user.
  • Use color with care.
  • Illustrate through multiple media.
  • Choose fonts carefully.
  • Anchor instruction by linking to and activating relevant prior knowledge.
  • Chunk information.
  • Provide multiple entry points to a lesson and optimal pathways through content.
  • Provide learners with choices of tools to demonstrate knowledge.
  • Provide alternative means for response, selection and composition.
  • Provide multiple means for navigationl.
  • Compose in multiple media.
  • Use outlining or concept mapping tools.
  • Provide scaffolds that can be gradually removed with increasing independence and skills.
  • Provide feedback.
  • Ask questions to guide reflection.
  • Provide self-assessment strategies.
  • Vary activities and sources of information so that they can be:
    • Personalized and contextualized to learners’ lives
    • Culturally relevant
    • Socially relevant
    • Appropriate for different racial, cultural, ethnic and gender groups
  • Design activities so that learning outcomes are authentic and relevant.
  • Provide tasks that allow for active participation and experimentation.
  • Vary the level of novelty.
  • Give choices of tools, technology, topics and work environments.
  • Provide feedback that is frequent, timely and specific.

To date, UDL has primarily been applied in the educational setting. However, UDL provides a solution for breaking the one-size-fits all mold of corporate learning. UDL research suggests that every learner can benefit from the greatest possible range of flexible approaches that a curriculum can provide.

TRAINING A DIVERSE WORKFORCE

Few adults identify as having learning disabilities, and many adults with learning disabilities are not diagnosed. It is therefore impossible to determine the exact percentage of people who have learning disabilities in any organization. However, curriculum designers should know that a percentage (10 to 15 percent in large organizations) of their learners likely have learning disabilities.

Most corporate training is designed to be a one-size-fits-all solution. In a diverse workforce, however, individual variability is the norm, not the exception. Training budget constraints and a lack of understanding of how diverse populations learn have resulted in training designed for the broad middle, or the imaginary average employees, in the organization. Learner variability is typically ignored, and those employees with different abilities and backgrounds are not provided with fair and equal opportunities to learn.

CONCLUSION

While some organizations view employing workers with disabilities as a component of their corporate social responsibility, others are only now beginning to realize the value of this largely untapped human resource. People who have spent their lives adapting to challenges in their environment can bring productivity, ingenuity and problem-solving skills to the workplace.

Universal design is a lens through which we can view every aspect of an organization. A diverse workforce brings greater experience, perspective and sustainability. It also means that learning design needs to be more diverse to satisfy the wider variety of needs and expectations.

The principles of UDL take into account the broad range of abilities, age, learning styles, languages and cultures prevalent in a workforce, placing the burden to adapt on the curriculum rather than the learner. UDL provides the framework for designing flexible curricula that reduces barriers to learning and provides robust support to all learners.

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