Universal Design for Learning in Adult Services

Adults in day programs or employment can benefit from Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Adult service programs and companies are often viewed as professional babysitters. Having worked in the field, I can attest that this is mostly true, since service providers are typically under-qualified to provide curriculum and evidence-based instruction to target needs and goals for adults with developmental disabilities. Curriculum exists for social skills training and functional life skills for adults and can be purchased for use. Some curricula may have even been developed with UDL in mind. Service providers can also create their own curriculum with the help of qualified employees or outside consultants.

Using UDL for Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Once curriculum has been selected, adult service providers can begin to adapt or modify curriculum to meet UDL (if it is not already built in). But how do you adapt, modify, or design curriculum to meet UDL standards? Here is a breakdown using social stories and budgeting as examples.

Affective (Engagement)

Incorporate interesting subject matter into the curriculum. For social stories, you might make trains the focus of a story about conversational turn taking, appropriate conversational topics, or reassuring the individual that it is okay to not discuss trains all the time. You may make the main character of a social story to be a train in order to connect with the individual. In the case of budgeting, you may introduce the purpose of learning how to budget is to afford the new item the individual wants to buy. You can provide examples of paying bills and saving for the item the individual wants, as well as showing when that item might be able to be purchased.

Some professionals may take the approach of withholding certain activities or items from an individual until a learning module is complete with a certain amount of accuracy. While this may be motivation for an individual to learn, it is not always the best option. More positive forms of engagement should be considered first. Professionals also need to consider how anxiety and fear affect an individual’s learning, and make changes to the environment as necessary.


Different curriculum modules may be recognized–or learned–differently for each individual. This can be accounted for by presenting the curriculum in multiple ways from the start. With social stories, I may use pictures and words with optional audio that reads the story to the individual. I may make the story into a short movie with captioning. I may also adapt the story to the reading level of the individual(s) with whom I am working. For budgeting, I can create a slide presentation that contains text and audio for each slide. I can also turn the presentation into a movie, and/or provide addition notes at the bottom of each slide.

Strategic (Expression)

Not all adults are going to be able to write a report, fill out a spreadsheet, or walk up to someone and immediately start a conversation. All of these modes of expression may be goals of the individual; however, expression of content learning is still needed regardless of where the individual is with other goals. Adults with developmental disabilities can display mastery of budgeting through concept maps and other graphic organizers, slide presentations, oral reports, written reports, or through budgeting apps on a phone, tablet  or personal computer. Social skills can be demonstrated with people the individual is familiar with first, or through Internet interaction or social media applications. Content mastery of social skills can also be first demonstrated through graphic organizers, reports, or presentations before those skills are practiced in the community.

Using UDL for Direct Support Professionals

Universal Design for Learning does not exclusively target individuals with developmental disabilities. Direct support professionals can benefit from training that is grounded in UDL. Since direct support professionals need a great deal of professional development training, curriculum with UDL built in might be the best approach.

Affective (Engagement)

Regardless of setting or professional, understanding affective networks will allow trainers to engage employees in the training curriculum to learn the material effectively. Paid training sessions and activities geared towards personal and professional interests might be the best starting points.


Recognition networks for direct support professionals can be used the same way they are used for curriculum for adults with developmental disabilities. Presenting the information in multiple formats will help professionals make connections that lead to action. Presentations in picture, audio and/or movie formats can be used. Written materials, movies, or personal 1:1 instruction may also be beneficial. You could even bring in a client for direct support professionals to interview and demonstrate instructional sessions.

Strategic (Expression)

Strategic networks also work the same way for professionals as they do for adults with disabilities. Multiple choice and/or short answer tests may not be suitable for everyone. Allowing professionals to demonstrate content mastery through various test formats, papers, oral reports or presentations can provide the information you are looking for from your employees.


Kandalaft, M.R., Didehbani, N., Kkkkkwczyk, D.C., Allen, T.T., & Chapman, S. B. (2013). Virtual reality social cognition training for young adults with high functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(1), 34-44.

Plavnick, J.B., Kaid, T., & MacFarland, M.C. (2015). Effects of a school-based social skills training program for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(9), 2674-2690.

Potter, S. L., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Technology integration for instructional improvement: The impact of professional development. Performance Improvement, 52(2), 22-27.

Wang, J., Hung, L., Hsieh, H., Tsai, J., & Lin, I. (2012). Computer technology integration and multimedia application for teacher professional development: The use of instructional technology in the classroom settings. IERI Procedia, 2, 616-622.

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