Don Johnston Apps Brings Universal Design into the Classroom

Posted on 10/13/2020
Don Johnston Apps Brings UD into the Classroom


Universal design (UD) plays a major role in school districts across the country. According to the National Disability Authority, UD is the “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.” With some planning and forethought, students, teachers, and community members who may have been excluded due to certain physical or other limitations are now able enjoy the same freedoms and flexibility that others can.

For example, the addition of automatic door openers to the entrance of a building makes access to the building easier for someone with mobility issues, but it’s also helpful to a teacher whose arms are full of supplies for that day’s class. Sidewalks with curb cuts were designed for wheelchair users but make the sidewalk more accessible for everyone. Speech-to-text is great for individuals who have difficulties writing, but anyone with ‘big thumbs’ can appreciate the ease of dictating a text or email. These tools have a large impact on individuals with different abilities, but can provide extra convenience to all.

UD also has an important place in the modern classroom.

“Sometimes we picture education to be a certain way - we access knowledge in very specific ways,” said Dr. Melinda Sheetz, the District’s literacy coordinator. “UD takes this notion and debunks it. It gives access to the same knowledge in very different ways. It knocks down barriers to learning that have existed since the beginning of education.”

By providing options for students with diverse learning modalities, abilities, motivations, and levels of background knowledge, it’s possible to ensure everyone succeeds. This could be as easy as providing an audio book alongside a paper book, having flexible seating in the classroom, providing multiple ways for students to be engaged, or using closed captioning on videos.

Adapting UD to a virtual classroom has required some creative thinking.

“The changes happening over the past few months have pushed educators to adapt and find different ways to help kids,” said Dr. Will Vanderpool, director of alternative learning. “One advancement has been with accessibility features for students with reading and writing disabilities.”

To assist students with virtual learning, the District has provided access to two Don Johnston Learning Academy products, Snap & Read and Co:Writer.

“Having access to our two Don Johnston UD platforms gives students the ability to hover over unknown words,” said Dr. Sheetz. “Synonyms, definitions, and even pictures are accessible to students, so they can understand what that word means.”

Snap & Read is a multifunction reading tool. The program can read text aloud, adjust the reading level without changing the meaning of the original text, act as a translation service on webpages, provide picture-supported dictionary, and much more.

Co:Writer provides assistive writing practices to help students verbalize their ideas and find their writing flow. This program includes predictive text, word to text speech recognition, assessment compliance features, and supports for phonics and vocabulary.

The Chrome extension and applications were automatically pushed out to all student devices. To access, students will need to log-in with their FHSD Google account. The products can also be installed on home computers for free from the Chrome Web Store or from the App Store.

Quick and self-paced training videos for a variety of topics for both tools can be found on the Don Johnston website. Guides for parents are also available: Snap & Read Guide for Parents, Co:Writer Guide for Parents.

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