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Universally Designed Math: Positive Implications for Students with Learning Disabilities

Steve Noble, Director of Accessibility Policy
Design Science, Inc.

According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there is great disparity between the levels of math literacy for students with disabilities when compared to the results for students without disabilities. Since math scores for students with disabilities are also being closely examined by the State assessments required under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), this issue will become even more critical for all public schools in the coming years. A number of studies have found that students with learning disabilities, in particular, experience more significant difficulties in acquiring math skills than do their peers without disabilities (Miller & Mercer, 1997).

There are undoubtedly many factors at work which have a connection to the poor math performance of students with disabilities. A fundamental contributing factor is that virtually all mainstream math instructional content and math assessments are not designed to be utilized with the assistive technology products that many students with disabilities use, and are thus not accessible. This is especially true of classroom textbooks, which are commonly used to determine the instructional math program for students in most school settings. 75% to 90% of all classroom instruction is based on textbooks, and, in most cases, those books define the scope and sequence of the material being taught (Tyson & Woodward, 1989). This is also the case with math instruction, where 80% to 90% percent of grades 4 - 12 math and science classrooms use textbooks (Hudson & McMahon, 2002).

Standard print textbooks are inaccessible to a large percentage of students with learning disabilities and usually require transformation into recorded or digital formats to provide access to students with various print disabilities (Stahl, 2004). Math textbooks and assessments will provide much greater accessibility for students with learning disabilities when they are made available in universally designed accessible digital formats. Formats that include rich math content as opposed to just images allow assistive technology with synthetic speech to read math equations out loud. In addition, they provide means for students to navigate both visually and aurally through complex math formulas and highlight expressions as they are read.

This session will provide attendees with the available data mentioned previously on the problem of poor math performance by students with disabilities on national standardized tests, such as the NAEP, and will show the connection to the problem of inaccessible instructional materials and assessments. A description and demonstration of how universally designed mainstream accessible math can be made available in the classroom to all students--both to those using assistive technology and those that do not--will be provided. An analysis of the current status of public policy requiring accessible instructional content and assessment (such as the NIMAS requirements under IDEA 2004 as well as various other laws) will be provided during the session, as well as recommendations for changes to public policy vehicles to explicitly require math accessibility standards that provide for universally designed mainstream math.


Hudson, S.B., McMahon, K.C. & Overstreet, C.M. (2002). The 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education: Compendium of Tables Authors. Horizon Research.

Miller, S., & Mercer, C. (1997). Educational Aspects of Mathematics Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30 (1), 47-56.

Stahl, S. (2004). The promise of accessible textbooks: increased achievement for all students. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved 05-26-06 from

Tyson, H., & Woodward, A. (1989). Why students aren't learning very much from textbooks. Educational Leadership, 47 (3), 14-17.

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