Access for Students with Disabilities

These materials empower all students with activities that capitalize on their existing strengths and abilities to ensure that all learners can participate meaningfully in rigorous mathematical content. Lessons support a flexible approach to instruction and provide teachers with options for additional support to address the needs of a diverse group of students. 

Curriculum Features that Support Access

Purposeful design elements that support all learners, but that are especially helpful for students with disabilities include:

Lesson Structures are Consistent
The structure of every lesson is the same: warm-up, activities, synthesis, cool-down (with centers in kindergarten and grade 1). By keeping the components of each lesson similar from day to day, the flow of work in class becomes predictable for students. This reduces cognitive demand and enables students to focus on the mathematics at hand rather than the mechanics of the lesson.

Concepts Develop from Concrete to Abstract
Mathematical concepts are introduced simply, concretely, and repeatedly, with complexity and abstraction developing over time. Students begin with concrete examples, and transition to drawings and diagrams before relying on symbols to represent the mathematics they encounter.

Individual to Pair, or Small Group to Whole Class Progression
Providing students with time to think through a situation or question independently before engaging with others allows students to carry the weight of learning, with supports arriving just in time from the community of learners. This progression allows students to first activate what they already know, and continue to build from this base with others.

Instructional strategies that support access

The following general instructional strategies can be used to help eliminate unnecessary barriers and make activities accessible to all students:

Processing Time
Increased time engaged in thinking and learning leads to mastery of grade level content for all students, including students with disabilities. Some students may need additional time, which should be provided as required.

Physical manipulatives help students make connections between concrete ideas and abstract representations. Often, students with disabilities benefit from hands-on activities, which allow them to make sense of the problem at hand and communicate their own mathematical ideas and solutions.

Visual Aids
Visual aids such as images, diagrams, vocabulary charts, color coding, or physical demonstrations support conceptual processing and language development. Providing continued access to visual aids, either by keeping them posted or providing students with individual copies, can support independence and working or short-term memory.

Graphic Organizers
Word webs, Venn diagrams, tables, and other metacognitive visual supports provide structures that illustrate relationships between mathematical facts, concepts, words, or ideas. Graphic organizers can be used to support students with organizing thoughts and ideas, planning problem-solving approaches, visualizing ideas, sequencing information, and comparing and contrasting ideas.

Brain Breaks
Brain breaks are short, structured, 2–3 minute movement breaks taken between activities, or to break up a longer activity (approximately every 20–30 minutes during a class period). Brain breaks are a quick, effective way of refocusing and re-energizing the physical and mental state of students during a lesson. Brain breaks have also been shown to positively impact student concentration and stress levels, resulting in more time spent engaged in mathematical problem solving. 

Timers are an excellent classroom tool that can help students develop independence and time management. They can also be used to ease transitions between activities. Songs that are familiar to all students, especially those that have become a part of a daily classroom routine, can also be used. Older students will benefit from knowing the allotted amount of time for a particular task or activity, and visual timers can be used for students who have not yet learned how to read a clock. At all grade levels, students will benefit from being able to see the timer. 

Access for Students with Disabilities

In line with the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (, each lesson includes additional strategies to help teachers increase access and eliminate barriers. These supports provide teachers with additional ways students can access activities, engage in content, and communicate their learning. Designed with students with disabilities in mind, they are appropriate for any students who need additional support to access rigorous, grade-level content. Each support aligns to one of the three principles of UDL: engagement, representation, and action and expression. 

Students’ attitudes, interests, and values help to determine the ways in which they are most engaged and motivated to learn. Supports that provide students with multiple means of engagement include suggestions that:

  • leverage curiosity and students’ existing interests
  • leverage choice around perceived challenge
  • encourage and support opportunities for peer collaboration
  • provide structures that help students maintain sustained effort and persistence during a task
  • provide tools and strategies designed to help students self-motivate and become more independent

Teachers can reduce barriers and leverage students’ individual strengths by inviting students to engage with the same content in different ways. Supports provide students with multiple means of representation including suggestions that: 

  • offer alternatives for the ways information is presented or displayed
  • help develop students’ understanding and use of mathematical language and symbols
  • illustrate connections between and across mathematical representations using color and annotations
  • identify opportunities to activate or supply background knowledge
  • describe organizational methods and approaches designed to help students internalize learning

Action and Expression
Throughout the curriculum, students are invited to share both their understanding and their reasoning about mathematical ideas with others. Supports that provide students with multiple means of action and expression include suggestions that: 

  • encourage flexibility and choice with the ways students demonstrate their understanding
  • support discourse with sentence frames or accompany writing prompts
  • use appropriate tools, templates, and assistive technologies
  • support the development of organizational skills in problem-solving
  • enable students to monitor their own progress with checklists

Understanding students’ individual strengths and challenges is important when it comes to selecting instructional supports. To help teachers identify and select appropriate supports, each support is tagged with the areas of cognitive functioning it is designed to address. The following areas of cognitive functioning are integral to learning mathematics (Addressing Accessibility Project, Brodesky et al., 2002). 

  • Conceptual Processing includes perceptual reasoning, problem solving, and metacognition.
  • Language includes auditory and visual language processing and expression.
  • Visual-Spatial Processing includes processing visual information and understanding relation in space of visual mathematical representations and geometric concepts.
  • Organization includes organizational skills, attention, and focus.
  • Memory includes working memory and short-term memory.
  • Attention includes paying attention to details, maintaining focus, and filtering out extraneous information.
  • Social-Emotional Functioning includes interpersonal skills and the cognitive comfort and safety required in order to take risks and make mistakes.
  • Fine-motor Skills include tasks that require small muscle movement and coordination such as manipulating objects (graphing, cutting with scissors, writing).

For additional information about the Universal Design for Learning framework, or to learn more about supporting students with disabilities, visit the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) at


  • Brodesky, A., Parker, C., Murray, E., & Katzman, L. (2002). Accessibility strategies toolkit for mathematics. Education Development Center. Retrieved from
  • CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from