Student Self-Advocacy and Universal Design for Learning

“Learning occurs at the intersection of good teaching
and students’ ownership of their educational experience.”

—The ACCESS Project Motto

Today’s colleges and universities face a vexing problem: unacceptably low rates of student persistence, retention and degree attainment. This is especially true among students with disabilities. Of the many factors that make up this complex problem (Belch, 2004-2005; deFur, Getzel, & Trossi, 1996; Paul, 2000; Tinto, 2002), the ACCESS Project has chosen to focus on two: instructors’ teaching practices and students’ ability to self-advocate.

Do instructors teach in ways that address multiple learning modalities, engage students, and promote learning for wide range of students? Do students lack the self-knowledge and skills required to advocate for their learning needs within the system of higher education? To ensure that college students with disabilities receive a quality education, ACCESS takes a dual approach by promoting inclusive, accessible teaching methods (Universal Design for Learning) on the one hand, and Student Self-Advocacy on the other. In support of this dual strategy, Izzo, Hertzgeld and Aaron (2001) note that raising the bar for students with disabilities, requires faculty and students to play “complimentary roles in the educational process” (p. 27).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) helps faculty “level the playing field” by making classroom instruction and course materials more accessible and engaging (Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006). UDL is a set of principles that guide the design of inclusive classroom instruction and accessible course materials. UDL’s three principles are: 1) multiple methods of representation that give learners a variety of ways to acquire information and build knowledge; 2) multiple means of student action and expression that provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they have learned; and 3) multiple modes of student engagement that tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn (Center for Applied Special Technology, 2011).

UDL helps improve retention by addressing the diversity among today’s students, including students with different life experiences, language backgrounds, learning styles, abilities and disabilities. It also recognizes technology’s ever-growing role in education—a role that is often critical for students with disabilities. The goal of UDL is the design instruction and instructional materials that can be used effectively by all students without the need for costly, time-consuming, individual accommodations.

Student Self-Advocacy (SA) guides students to take a proactive role in the management of their college experience. Research has shown SA to be a key predictor of success among college students with disabilities (Brinckerhoff, 1994; Lock & Layton, 2001; Vogel & Adelman, 1992). SA has been clearly linked to improving student persistence and retention (Izzo & Lamb, 2002). In fact, studies have shown that educational opportunities are enhanced when students understand their learning needs and can advocate for themselves at their postsecondary institutions (Aune, 2000; deFur, et al., 1996; Durlak & Rose, 1994). Citing research conducted from 1991 to 2001, Belch (2004) states that “Since self-determination skills have been determined to be essential skills for success, students with disabilities need opportunities to develop and practice self-advocacy and self-awareness skills and to learn about rights and responsibilities” (p. 7).

Universally-designed instruction and course materials help meet the varied needs of a diverse population of learners, while student self-advocacy skills represent an empowering component of college success, especially for students with disabilities. As enrollment of students with disabilities in higher education grows, so does the need for strategies that address both universal instruction and student self-advocacy (Fichten, Jorgensen, Havel, & Barile, 2006). Through this dual approach, students with disabilities will, we believe, achieve greater levels of persistence, retention and graduation.


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