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Listening to Audiobooks Is Not Cheating! It’s UDL.

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

By Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it. —Vincent van Gogh” ― Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines

Have you ever wondered about the different ways of doing things? In schools, we do not embrace variability. In fact, there’s a systemic need to carbon print people into “productive members of society”. That’s the essence of the factory model of education – which is still in place to this day. Have you ever wondered about how if we were REALLY, all the same, it may look like something out of the Dr. Seuss book Hooray for Diffendoofer Day?

illustration of students walking a winding path that all look the same holding the same book with a sad expression on their faces from Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! by Dr. Seuss

Image from Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! by Dr. Seuss

So how on earth do we have this dichotomy where we intuitively know that we need to provide options, choices, and flexibility in learning, but yet we don’t do it? We are systematically told that there is one way to read. There is one way to write. If you don’t hit that mark, there must be something wrong with you. If there’s something wrong with you, then clearly you don’t belong here and must go learn elsewhere.

How often have you been in a classroom where there are options, choices, and flexibility throughout the learning process? How often have you witnessed literacy in the general education classroom where there is a variety of text in a variety of formats, and there are options on how learners show what they know?

Does this happen in your environments? Or is there just one way to attack print (i.e. reading “the traditional way”)? Is there one way to write? Do you allow accommodations for all?

A common frustration in this line of work as an accessibility accomplice is to be called to provide a different lens for learners to access grade-level content and materials, and yet to have those same colleagues sabotage these efforts by saying that accommodations are cheating. Or to not allow a learner to use a recommended tool or support because that’s “not reading” or is “not writing”. Furthermore, when consulting with learners about using assistive technology in the form of text to speech and have the teacher declare “Oh! I don’t’ like that voice AT ALL! Johnny- do you like that voice?” Is sabotaging efforts to create a more inclusive school experience. It keeps us separate and is dangerous to our learners.

On the flip side, there have been successes. A recent conversation with an upcoming graduate revealed the importance of these same accommodations in their success in accessing higher-level course content. Using tools such as text to speech and speech to text allowed this learner to be more proficient in accessing grade-level content and kept this individual up to par with their peers. They weren’t missing out on anything- they were learning in the way that made the best sense for THEM. Isn’t that the goal of education? Isn’t that the goal of developing expert learners?

Consider this research in the use of accommodations or alternate formats in accessing print materials:

“Student’s fluency increases when they have an opportunity to LISTEN to books (i.e. audio, text to speech) prior to reading independently” -Klingner (2015) Teaching Reading Comprehension to Students with Learning Disabilities (2nd Edition)

In a study published by the Journal of Neuroscience (Deniz, Nunez-Elizalde, Huth, Gallant, 2019), researchers saw that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium. It’s adding to our understanding of how our brains give semantic meaning to the squiggly letters and bursts of sound that make up our communication. The same areas of the brain were activated regardless of input.

Allowing learners to use accommodations in a Universally Designed way allows for inclusion to happen in the least restrictive environment. It honors the individual’s needs and preferences while supporting challenges. Using Assistive Technology tools and supports, such as text to speech and speech to text for readers and writers can serve as a bridge to success and independence in a truly powerful way. Remember, the use of assistive technology accommodations is not cheating. It is a true act of love when we empower learners to figure out what they need in a collaborative manner and support the use of strategies in supports in building learner expertise. Let’s spend more time honoring each other for the variability within us all, as opposed to shaming each other for being different.



Klingner, J. K., Vaughn, S., & Boardman, A. (2015). Teaching reading comprehension to students with learning disabilities. New York: Guilford Press.

Walter, J. (2019, December 23). Audiobooks or Reading? To Our Brains, It Doesn’t Matter. Retrieved January 27, 2020, from


Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles, Ph.D. ATP is an accessibility accomplice providing training, support, and consultation to organizations around Assistive Technology, Accessible Educational Materials, and Universal Design for Learning. She is passionate about ensuring that learning is inclusive and accessible for all learners in a way that makes sense for them. She is an Assistive Technology Specialist for RSU 21 in Kennebunk, Maine where she is grateful to “be paid to think differently” and supports inclusive learning practices through the intentional use of AT, AEM, and UDL. Hillary has written and spoken in various spaces around AT, AEM, and UDL. She is also an adjunct faculty member for the University Of New England’s graduate certification programs in inclusion, as well as the University of Maine at Farmington’s graduate programs in Special Education. Home is where her heart is in Saco, Maine with her husband, son, and stepson (who have both left the nest) and cats.

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