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UDL in 15 Minutes with Heather Avery and Anthony Carey

Lowering Barriers and the Dignity of Risk: Using Universal Design for Learning to Achieve Both

In episode 121, Heather Avery and Anthony Carey frame their conversation with one question: “Am I leaving anyone out?” It is a powerful question for any learning context, but Anthony is asking it while teaching a fully inclusive technology course. This course focuses on more than computers. Students also learn about cooking, sewing, and wood crafting among other topics. This is all hands-on learning and includes the use of machines and tools that could physically harm a learner. Anthony is now facing the question of lowering barriers but keeping all learners safe. Anthony is facing the concept of dignity of risk.

Dignity of risk is when a person is given the right and responsibility of making choices that could have negative consequences. Through this participation, the individual gets to experience those consequences. Those experiences are a crucial part of learning (Shouse, J. (n.d.)).

Unfortunately, some educators use the veil of safety to minimize or even prohibit the participation of students with disabilities in some courses and coursework. Anthony, on the other hand, wants his learners to fully experience his courses, but participate in ways that maintain their safety. Anthony wants all of his learners to experience the dignity of risk, but keep them safe.

Here’s what I love about the way Anthony, Heather, and the Bayside community are asking their primary question. They are shifting the typical Universal Design for Learning (UDL) conversation. To explain, here is a quote from me pulled from late in the podcast:

I want to thank you for personalizing that question because what you’ve done is you’ve turned the question of, “What is the barrier?” and shifted it from being depersonalized, to an act of personalizing it and putting yourself in there. “Who am I (emphasis added) leaving out?” And that, to me, is the sign of truly inclusive thinking.

By positioning himself in the question, Anthony is questioning whether he is going to provide the dignity of risk to all of his learners. He is asking the hard question of what barriers are preventing learning and what barriers are there to minimize harm?

Let’s hop over into the UDL Guidelines to look at it from a place of design. A key UDL checkpoint that addresses the dignity of risk is Checkpoint 8.2: “Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge”. This checkpoint encourages use to challenge learners but in varying levels and types of demands. Some examples include:

  • Offering opportunities for students to choose the level of challenge or complexity in an assignment.
  • Allowing students to propose their own ideas and solutions, even if they may not be “perfect.”
  • Encouraging students to reflect on their learning process and identify areas for growth.
  • Providing scaffolding and supports that enable students to stretch their abilities without fear of failure.
  • Providing graphic organizers or guiding questions to support students in their analysis, while still allowing room for their unique insights and approaches.

More in line with what Anthony is designing for his courses:

  • Demonstrating a piece of machinery step-by-step and offering students the opportunity to choose which step they’d like to try.
  • Providing hand-over-hand guidance when students are learning the tool or machine and asking them to state when they’ve like to experience independence.
  • Working with occupational therapy colleagues to design structural supports that enable learners fully participate in operating the tools and machinery.

Another core consideration is ensuring that all students, regardless of their backgrounds and learning profiles, have equitable opportunities to engage with the complex thematic content and share their perspectives. This aligns with Checkpoint 8.3: “Foster collaboration and community”.

Some strategies that uphold the dignity of risk for all learners could include:

  • Providing options for students to work in small, heterogeneous groups to discuss the use of a tool or machine. This allows them to build on each other’s ideas in a supportive environment before individual use.
  • Implementing structured protocols for peer feedback, where students provide constructive, strengths-based comments on each other’s work. This nurtures a classroom culture where risk-taking is valued.

By applying these UDL-aligned strategies, we create space for all students to authentically engage in the class activities. They can take appropriate risks, leverage their unique perspectives, and develop their analytical skills without fear of failure.

By embracing the dignity of risk within a UDL-aligned learning environment, we empower students to take ownership of their learning, develop critical thinking skills, and build resilience in the face of challenges. This ultimately supports their progress towards academic goals and their development as independent, lifelong learners.

By incorporating these UDL-aligned options that honor the dignity of risk, we can foster a classroom culture where students feel empowered to grow as expert learners.


Shouse, J. (n.d.). The Dignity of Risk. Retrieved July 07, 2020, from