Accommodations and Universal Design

(Adapted from Universal Design: Principles, Process, and Applications and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.)

In a recent U.S. study, 6% of the postsecondary undergraduate students surveyed identified themselves as having disabilities. The types of disabilities reported by these students were:

Source: An Institutional Perspective on Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, Postsecondary Education Quick Information System, August 1999
Learning disabilities 45.7%
Mobility or orthopedic impairments 13.9%
Health impairments 11.6%
Mental illness or emotional disturbance 7.8%
Hearing impairments 5.6%
Blindness and visual impairments 4.4%
Speech or language impairments 0.9%
Other impairments 9.1%

In order to create the most inclusive campus environment for all students, both proactive (universal design) and reactive (accommodation) strategies must be employed.


In postsecondary settings it is the students' responsibility to request disability-related accommodations. Typically, students with disabilities present documentation regarding their disabilities to a central office that approves accommodations and communicates with staff and faculty members as appropriate. Examples of accommodations commonly used by students with different types of disabilities include the following.

Visual Impairments

  • large print, Brailled or audiotaped publications
  • TV monitors connected to microscope to enlarge images
  • class assignments in electronic format
  • computers equipped to enlarge screen images or provide speech and/or Braille output
  • raised-line drawings of graphic images
  • auditory emergency warning signals
  • adapted lab equipment (e.g., talking thermometers, tactile timers)

Hearing Impairments

  • notetakers
  • sign language interpreters
  • real-time captioning
  • FM amplification systems
  • captioned films
  • visual aids
  • visual emergency warning systems

Learning Disabilities

  • notetakers
  • audiotaped class sessions
  • extra exam time
  • alternative testing arrangements
  • visual and tactile instructional demonstrations
  • computers with speech output, spell checkers, and grammar checkers

Mobility Impairments

  • notetakers; lab assistants
  • classes, labs, and field trips in accessible locations
  • adjustable tables; lab equipment located within reach
  • computers equipped with special input devices (e.g., speech input, alternative keyboard or mouse)

Health Impairments

  • flexible attendance requirements
  • notetakers
  • extra exam time
  • use of email to facilitate communication

Universal Design

Most faculty and staff members consider accessibility issues only after students with disabilities enroll in their courses or attempt to access their services. They provide accommodations in response to the needs of a specific student with a disability. A more proactive approach to making courses and services accessible to everyone, including students with disabilities, is called "universal design." Universal design is an intentional process where access to students with disabilities is considered routinely as instruction and campus services are designed.

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Courses, services, and information resources developed when universal design principles are applied and are accessible to people with a wide variety of characteristics, including those related to gender, race/ethnicity, age, native language, and level of ability to see, hear, move and speak. Sidewalk curbcuts are an example of universal design. Although they were developed for wheelchair-users they are more often used by parents with baby carriages, travelers with wheeled luggage, and service delivery staff with rolling carts. Universal design is good design.

Universal design principles can be applied to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, web pages, science labs, fieldwork, campus services, and information resources. Universal design allows for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. When faculty and staff consider the wide range of characteristics of potential students, they make course content, student services offices, and campus-sponsored activities more accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic/racial backgrounds, ages, language skills, and learning styles.

Following are examples of applications of principles of universal design on a college campus.

Campus Climate

  • creating a classroom environment that respects and values diversity
  • putting a statement on the syllabus that encourages students to meet with the instructor to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs
  • respecting the privacy of all students

Physical Access, Usability, and Safety

  • making classrooms and student service offices accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities
  • providing computers that can be used with a variety of input devices
  • assuring the safety of all students in a science lab
  • providing adjustable tables and wide aisles in a computer lab

Delivery Methods

  • employing a variety of curriculum delivery methods
  • including lecture, discussion, hands-on activities that are accessible to students with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, interests, and previous experiences
  • facing the class and speaking clearly in an environment that is free from distractions
  • placing content on a website that is designed to be accessible to students with disabilities

Information Resources

  • using a captioned videotape
  • making printed materials available in electronic format
  • including text descriptions of graphics presented on web pages
  • providing printed and Web-based materials in simple, intuitive, and consistent formats and arranging content in order of importance


  • encouraging different ways for students to interact with each other and with the instructor
  • allowing for in-person, by-phone, by-FAX, and Internet-based communications with a campus service


  • providing feedgack and corrective opportuntities
  • arranging for peer feedback


  • providing multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge (e.g., printed tests, group work, demonstrations, portfolios, presentations)


  • knowing how to arrange for accommodations

Universal design benefits students other than those who have disabilities. Making syllabi, short assignment sheets, reading lists, student resources available on an accessible website benefits all students, not just those who use text-to-speech computer systems because they are blind. Enunciating clearly and facing the class when speaking benefits everyone, not just those who read lips. Using clear and simple language in well-organized publications and websites benefits everyone, not just students with learning disabilities. Captions on video clips benefit students whose native language is not English and in a variety of noiseless or noisy environments, not just students who are deaf.

Universal design minimizes, but does not eliminate, the need for accommodations. Both proactive and reactive approaches are needed in order to maximize the inclusion of students with disabilities in college courses and services. Promoting universal design as well as providing accommodations is

  • cost-effective,
  • sends a clear message that all students are equally important, and
  • makes courses and services more accessible to everyone.

Such an approach requires clear direction from high level administrators and effective communication between faculty, students, and the disabled student services office. It should be reflected in policy throughout the institution.

The Process of Universal Design

Universal design is a process that requires taking a macro view of the application being considered as well as a micro view of subparts of the application. The following process can be used to apply universal design to any campus course, information resource, service, or other offering:

  1. Identify the application. Specify the product or environment (i.e., the service, course, website, or other application) to which you wish to apply universal design.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population-e.g., students in a course or users of a technology-and then the diverse characteristics of potential members of the population for which the application is described (e.g., with respect to gender; age; size; ethnicity/race; native language; and abilities to see, hear, move and manipulate objects, and learn.)
  3. Involve consumers. Determine how to include people with disabilities and other diverse characteristics in development and implementation of the application.
  4. Adopt UD guidelines/standards/performance indicators. Create or select existing UD guidelines/standards. Integrate UD practices with other best practices within the field of the specific application.
  5. Apply UD guidelines/standards/performance indicators. Apply universal design along with design standards of good practice within the field to the overall design of the application, subcomponents of the application, and maintenance and procurement processes.
  6. Plan for accommodations. Develop processes to address accommodation requests (e.g., purchase of assistive technology, arrangement for sign language interpreters) from individuals for whom the design does not automatically provide access.
  7. Train and support. Tailor and deliver training and support to stakeholders (e.g., instructors, computer support staff, procurement offices, administrators).
  8. Evaluate. Include universal design measures in the evaluation of the application, evaluate the application with a diverse group of users, and make modifications based on their feedback.

For specific applications of accommodations and universal design to academic programs and student services, respectively, consult:

Accommodations and Universal Design of Instruction in The Faculty Room, a comprehensive resource for faculty and academic administrators.

Accommodations and Universal Design in The Student Services Conference Room, a comprehensive resource for staff of campus service offices.