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Assistive Technology and Universal Design in Education: What’s the Relationship?

The relationship between assistive technology and universal design in education has been a point of confusion for many professionals (Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, & Zabala, 2005). For example, if a building has an electronic door sensor to open the front door automatically, is it reasonable to conclude that wheelchairs will no longer be needed? The interesting problem is that the door sensor may serve as assistive technology for some and yet serve as universal design by helping everyone.

Assistive technology is provided through an individualized accommodations model. That is, a person with a disability must receive a referral and evaluation before appropriate assistive technology devices and services can be provided. Many professionals are concerned that this process mirrors a medical model.

In contrast, UD interventions are given to everyone with the understanding that those who need specialized support will use the tools when they need them (i.e., embedded just-in-time supports). In many cases, the technology supports we give to everyone have been shown to be effective as assistive technology for individuals with disabilities.

To meet the needs of some, UDL is committed to giving the tools to everyone. Assistive technology may be pre-empted by UDL interventions. However, as the example above concerning the electronic door sensor illustrates, assistive technology and UDL may co-exist.

Today I was reading about a new tool, Google Insights for Search, that was designed to shift through massive data sets to help researchers discern patterns in data. As I explored the capabilities of this new tool, I searched on the term “assistive technology” and received the graph shown below illustrating a decline in the number of news headlines with the term appearing in Google News. This evidence supports the impressions I have felt about a decline of assistive technology in K-12 schools as well as in post-secondary education.

I then realized that this tool may also reveal a corresponding increase in attention on universal design in education. I searched on the term “universal design for learning” and received the graph below. Clearly there is a different trajectory for the frequency of the term “universal design for learning” then there is for the term “assistive technology.”

What are your thoughts about the relationship of the terms assistive technology and universal design in education? Has this been a point of confusion for your faculty and staff? Do you find conversations about special education technology focusing more on UDE and less on AT?


Rose, D.H., Hasselbring, T.S., Stahl, S., & Zabala, J. (2005). Assistive technology and universal design for learning: Two sides of the same coin. In D. Edyburn, K. Higgins, & R. Boone (Eds.), Handbook of special education technology research and practice (pp. 507-518). Whitefish Bay, WI: Knowledge by Design.