Inclusive education in Kenya: What the Universal Design for Learning can offer

June 8, 2023

As the Senate Education Committee in Kenya considers The Learners with Disabilities Bill, 2023,  it is important to pay attention to global trends in the education of children with disabilities, one of which is inclusive education. The argument for inclusive education is that all learners, with and without disabilities, have a right to be present, to participate, and to achieve learning outcomes in the same educational environment.

So, how would teachers go about facilitating learning to a class of diverse students, such as those with hearing impairments, visual impairments, intellectual disabilities (including autism), physical impairments and those without disabilities (or those whose disabilities are not yet diagnosed)? In other words, after we get children with disabilities and those without disabilities in the same classroom, how would a teacher go about ensuring that all students learn, regardless of their diversities?

The relatively new concept of Universal Design Learning (UDL) comes in handy. UDL is an approach to education that is related to curriculum differentiation. Two approaches may be used to differentiate the curriculum: One, plan the lesson and then adapt for diversity or, two, plan the lesson for the greatest amount of diversity. The UDL concept springs from the second approach, guided by the theory of Universal Design.

According to the Center for Excellence in Universal Design, established by the National Disability Authority under the Disability Act 2005 in the UK, “a Universal Design is a design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design.” If we design for those in the margins, our building turns out better for everyone. For example, ramps are used by people in wheelchairs, people with strollers and people on bikes. Closed captioning on televisions can be used by people with hearing impairments, people in gyms and spouses who get to sleep at different times.

The Center for Assistive and Special Technology (CAST), an educational NGO in the USA, extended the approach of Universal Design to the education context, coming up with the UDL, an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students. The approach focuses on the design of the learning environment and curriculum rather than on fixing perceived deficits in learners. A plan is made upfront to meet the learners’ widest range of needs from the start, with the understanding that there is no such thing as the average learner – we all learn differently.

Applying UDL

How do we apply UDL in the classroom? According to CAST, this can be done using three principles that spring from scientific insights into how people learn:

Principle 1: Providing multiple means of representation i.e. present information and content in different ways. For example, instead of only passing the target content verbally, the teacher may write on the board, issue handouts with paragraphs and charts, and code-switch from English to Kiswahili to mother tongue, as appropriate.

Principle 2: Providing multiple means of action and expression i.e. differentiate the ways that students can express what they know. For example, the teacher may allow students to write essays, debate, create songs, plays, murals or videos to demonstrate what they have learned from reading a novel.

Principle 3: Providing multiple means of engagement i.e. differentiate the ways to stimulate interest and motivation for learning. For example, in a course on rhyme, the teacher may allow students to pick their favorite poems or songs to identify rhymes.

Some policy and practice imperatives

The principles of UDL, which were originally developed for supporting learners with disabilities, are now recognised by UNESCO as important in enabling an equal opportunity to learn for all students in a classroom. All learners are bound to benefit from the approach, because designing the curriculum for students in the margins would make access to it better for everyone.

As we reimagine education reform in Kenya, including in regard to the The Learners with Disabilities Bill, there might be a need to consider UDL as one approach towards enhancing the inclusion of children with diverse needs in the classroom. In relation to Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development, teachers need to be equipped with skills to implement UDL in the classroom as one way of enhancing professional growth and learning outcomes. However, because the concept of UDL originates from the USA, a well-resourced context, it is important to consider how it can be applied in resource-constrained contexts, such as Kenya. What needs attention in adopting UDL is how to navigate challenges such as large class sizes, teacher shortages and limited access to technology, among others. In addition, while UDL aims at promoting flexibility, the system of education is often rigid. How learners are taught and learning outcomes assessed is often decided by people outside the classroom, and the teacher’s imagination and agency is limited in this regard. It is important to not only focus on implementing UDL, but to also address the larger systemic forces that shape the education system.


Dr Amani Karisa is a postdoctoral research scientist at APHRC.