S.H.I.F.T Happens!

Updated: Jun 22

By Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles & Mia Laudato

This article was originally published at hillaryhelpsulearn.com/s-h-i-f-t-happens and has been edited lightly for clarity.

So much is shifting in this world. COVID-19 has knocked us off our feet. Its relentlessness is unlike anything we’ve experienced. The events of the past 6 months have required a fundamental shift in everything – including education. This shift requires us to examine our systems, our isms of the world. The things that dehumanize us. Perhaps, at this moment, we finally acknowledge and recognize the humanity in all of us.

But before we explore this, let’s flashback to springtime 2018. Florida. An innovative educational conference – the Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN). Two people [the authors of this article] connected via Twitter meet in real life. A conversation began around the lack of truly meaningful inclusive opportunities for learners with significant disabilities. The talking around supporting learners with significant disabilities with UDL. It felt like UDL’s promise of teaching to the margins was missing the mark.

In this conversation, an idea was born. One that married all of the things “out there” in the world of inclusion and UDL. It’s here that the S.H.I.F.T. framework was born.

What is S.H.I.F.T?

  1. Supports in place

  2. Have a plan

  3. Include

  4. Framework that truly centers all learners UDL.

  5. Teams Approach

The goal of the S.H.I.F.T framework is, in the words of disability rights advocate Alice Wong, “to center the wisdom of disabled people and welcome others in rather than asking for permission or acknowledgment.” Spaces in education should create a sense of belonging for ALL learners not just those that fit in a particular band or percentage. Leveraging the S.H.I.F.T. framework serves to meet the needs of learners with significant disabilities while honoring those learners.

Supports in Place

Having supports in place is an integral part of S.H.I.F.T.

  1. Intentional design of physical AND virtual spaces (includes materials, methods, accommodations, and assessments) that center the needs of learners with significant disabilities.

  2. Resources include (but are not limited to) access to AEM (Accessible Educational Materials) for curriculum and assessments.

  3. Tools include access to Assistive Technology/AAC and instructional tech for multiple means of representation, action, and expression.

  4. Skilled Personnel includes access to high-quality training for all.

To think of this another way, Browder, Spooner, and Courtade (2020) have connected elements to a culturally responsive framework. This is a form of having supports in place, access to technology, systematic and explicit instruction, integrating culturally relevant information, provide multiple opportunities, and primary language support. The authors also specifically note UDL as a vehicle for this framework (which will be covered later on).

Have a Plan

Having a plan MUST be student-centered and include considerations of access and advocacy, which contributes to a sense of belonging. This is academic (I can), psychological (I want to), and social (I belong). Plans should be fluid and include both face-to-face, hybrid, and online environments. Co-planning with a learner-centered focus that includes the learner, stakeholders, parents/guardians, administration, teachers, and therapists. Furthermore, plans must include time for training and collaboration for all members of the team.


This one should be an obvious one, but it’s not. As our school system was originally designed for the “factory model,” it’s time for educators and institutions to go beyond more than just creating a separate space for learners with significant disabilities, but to include them in ALL spaces. How many times have you heard an educator say “so and so does not belong in my classroom, or in this program?” Does it make you cringe? Have you said it? Imagine how it must feel to have someone say “you don’t belong here” (whether it’s directly or indirectly). What if this were your child? Wouldn’t you want them to be included with ALL of their peers?

“In simple terms diversity is the mix and inclusion is getting the mix to work well together.” Global Diversity Practice

Framework that truly centers all learners – with UDL

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that is rooted in neuroscience. The UDL Guidelines provide options, choices, and flexibility in curriculum, materials, methods, and assessments. The promise of UDL is to design around disability first but what about those with significant disabilities? Elizabeth Hartmann, (2015) states:

“The UDL framework states that learners with severe disabilities, like all learners, should not be defined by their perceived impairments because they require access to certain supports to learn. When teachers embrace the conceptual shift of the UDL framework and learner variability, they understand that severe disabilities are part of the natural diversity that is to be expected and embraced in classrooms.”

Key questions when leveraging the UDL guidelines to meet the needs of learners with significant disabilities should be:

  1. Where am I using the Guidelines to design for the needs of students with significant disabilities?

  2. Where can I improve? Choose one area and build on that.

Remember, UDL is a framework that helps educators proactively plan for learner variability. Use the guidelines intentionally.

Teams Approach

“A successful team does not operate in isolation but recognizes the strengths and skills of each individual towards the successful collaboration for inclusion.” Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles and Mia Laudato

We know that some special educators are STILL working as islands unto themselves. The SHIFT needs to support a future where the days of working in isolation are long gone. Educators must d