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Empowering Inclusive Education: The Synergy of UDL, AEM, and AT

Updated: Jun 7

Posted by: Jill McCann, M.S. SpEd and Jennifer Wright, M.A., CCC-SLP

three hands and finger connecting to show inclusivity

In today's dynamic and diverse educational landscape, inclusivity is not just a buzzword—it's a fundamental principle.

Creating an inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive requires the harmonious integration of Universal Design for Learning (UDL),  Assistive Technology (AT),  and Accessible Educational Materials (AEM). Together, let's explore the deep connections between these three pillars of inclusive education!

Universal Design for Learning: A Blueprint for Equity

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that promotes flexibility, accessibility, and equity. Stated by Meyer et al. (2014) in CAST's Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice, UDL "aims to cater to the diverse needs of all learners by providing multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression." UDL is not just about accommodating students with disabilities; it's about recognizing and celebrating the uniqueness and variability of ALL learners.

Image of book titled, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice

UDL can be compared to universal design in architecture. In the early days of building design, staircases posed barriers to access and participation for those unable to navigate them. Then came the days of retrofitting and building ramps onto existing structures and incorporating elevators.

CAST further points out that "Incorporating UDL into the curriculum is like providing ramps and elevators for students' minds. It ensures that all students, regardless of their abilities, can access and engage with the learning process."

If you are looking for strategies and digital tools to support the UDL framework while designing lessons, visit the UDL Resource Flip Kit on the Open Access website. Simply choose a strand and filter for the type of resource you are looking for.


The Role of Assistive Technology

two hearts overlapping with UDL and AT showing barriers reduced

Assistive Technology  (AT) is a critical component in the UDL framework. It provides the necessary tools and resources to make the curriculum accessible to every student. AT offers customized solutions, ensuring students can engage with content in ways that support access. Whether through text-to-speech, word-prediction, adaptive software, or other assistive tools, AT enhances the flexibility and inclusivity of educational materials, further reducing barriers and creating access avenues for students.

In UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning (Novak, 2022), Dr. Katie Novak underlines this symbiotic relationship by stating, "AT and UDL work hand in hand, with AT serving as the bridge between student needs and the flexibility UDL offers."

If you are considering AT strategies and digital tools to support your students, visit the AT Resource Flip Kit on the Open Access website for ideas. Simply pick a strand (tied to areas of need) and then filter for the type of tool or resource you are looking for.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) plays an important role in empowering student autonomy. For some, verbal communication needs to be supported and AAC can provide a bridge to express thoughts, ideas, and needs. Everyone, no matter the extent of their disability, has the basic right to impact the conditions of their existence through communication. This is a key component of the Communication Bill of Rights (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), 2016) as mentioned by the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication includes strategies that the AAC user and their partners can employ to support effective communication with tools ranging from simple picture boards to sophisticated speech-generating devices. 

The use of AAC can enhance communication, foster independence, and promote social interaction. Thus giving a voice to those who may have limited verbal speech and ensure that all students, regardless of their communication abilities, have the opportunity to engage actively in learning and social environments. 

If you are looking for ways to support student communication and engagement, check out  the Communication Bill of Rights poster available in both English and Spanish

Image of the Communication Bill of Rights

Design by Bri Bolin/Easy as AAC (2022). Adapted from NJC Communication Bill of Rights (2016) ASHA and Accessible Communication Bill of Rights (2017) Kate Ahern. Images by Drawn to AAC.Translated and Adapted by BilingueAAC.

If it is strategies and resources you are looking for, visit the AAC Resources on the Open Access website where you'll find a variety aided language supports and collaborative teaming tools.

AAC isn't just a tool; it's a pathway to inclusion, understanding, and a brighter educational future for students with disabilities.  


Accessible Educational Materials: A Core Component

Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) are the instructional materials and technologies that are usable across the widest range of student variability.  AEM encompasses a range of components designed to ensure equitable access to learning resources for all students, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. These components include adaptable formats such as electronic texts and audiobooks, enabling students to consume content in ways that suit their individual needs. 

AEM also involves the incorporation of alternative navigation methods, allowing students to interact with educational materials in a manner compatible with assistive technologies. Descriptive alternatives for visual content, like images and graphs, are integral to making visual information accessible for those with visual impairments. Furthermore, the flexibility to adjust font sizes, colors, and contrast accommodates diverse learning preferences. "AEM bridges the gap between curriculum and students' individual needs. It includes options like digital textbooks, audio versions, and Braille materials, making learning materials accessible to all” (National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST, 2023).

The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST offers many no-cost resources available to support learning more about AEM. Head to their website and choose "getting started," then "what's my role." In true UDL form, you'll be guided through a variety of options for learning more about AEM and actions to take right away to make materials more accessible for all students. Another great place to start learning about AEM is through their video series on YouTube.


The Synergy: UDL, AT, and AEM

When UDL, AT, and AEM come together, they create a powerful trifecta of inclusivity

colorful bubbles and 3 abstract people
  • UDL provides the framework for designing flexible and diverse curricula. 

  • AT includes the strategies, tools and technology to meet individual needs. 

  • AEM ensures that instructional materials are accessible to all, no matter their abilities.

As educators, administrators, and policymakers continue to embrace this synergy, they pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable education system. If we can implement UDL principles, embrace AT solutions, and prioritize AEM, then we have taken critical steps empowering all students to access, engage, and succeed in their learning journey.

As educational systems move towards inclusive education, the connections between Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and Accessible Educational Materials are vital. The collaborative efforts of these three components create an educational environment where every student's potential is unlocked, celebrated, and nurtured. 

By understanding and embracing the interplay between UDL, AT, and AEM, we have the opportunity to collectively shape the future of education, making it more inclusive, accessible, and empowering for all learners.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). (2016). Communication bill of

rights. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Learning and participation for all students. Open Access 2.0. (2023).

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. T. (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST. AEM Center. (2023).

Novak, K. (2022). UDL NOW! A teacher’s guide to applying Universal Design for Learning


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