Equal Access: Universal Design of an Academic Department

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A checklist for making postsecondary departments welcoming and accessible to all students

by Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD

The group of individuals pursuing computing fields is becoming increasingly diverse with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, learning style, age, disability, and other characteristics. High-tech careers are potentially open to individuals with disabilities because of advancements in assistive technology that provide access to computers. However, the inaccessible design of facilities and software, curriculum, web pages, and distance learning courses continue to erect barriers.

When it comes to an academic department, the vision is simply equal access. Everyone who qualifies to take courses within your department and anyone who is qualified to teach them should be able to do so.

Universal design can provide an approach for making your department accessible to all potential students and instructors. Universal design is defined by the architect Ron Mace 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."1 It suggests that, rather than design your departmental offerings for the average user, design them for people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. More information about applications of universal design can be found in Universal Design: Principles, Process, and Applications2.

In applying universal design, keep in mind that individuals in your department may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. Make sure everyone

Although applying universal design minimizes the need for accommodations for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, it is also important to have a plan in place to respond to additional accommodation requests in a timely manner and to ensure that faculty and staff are prepared to work with colleagues and students who have disabilities.

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide faculty and administrators in making their academic department more accessible. This content does not provide legal advice. To help clarify legal issues, consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer or call your regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate your facilities and programs.

Facility and Environment

Ensure physical access, comfort, and safety within an environment that is welcoming to visitors with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages.

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal4 for more suggestions.

Support Services

Make sure support staff are prepared to work with all students, faculty, and staff.

Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services5 for more suggestions for making services accessible to all students.

Information Resources

Ensure that departmental publications and websites welcome a diverse group and that information is accessible to everyone.

Courses and Faculty

Ensure that faculty members deliver courses that are accessible to all students and that accommodations are provided in a timely manner.

Computers, Software, and Assistive Technology

Make technology in computing facilities accessible to everyone. Begin with a few items and add more later.

For more information about making a computer lab accessible, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs.9 For information about assistive technology, consult DO-IT's technology and universal design videos and publications10.

Checklist Updates

This checklist was adapted with permission from the checklists within the publications Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs11 and Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services5 (S. Burgstahler). All of these checklists are being refined and field-tested at postsecondary institutions nationwide. To increase the usefulness of the checklist for your department included in this publication, send suggestions to sherylb@uw.edu.

Getting Started

Looking at all of these suggestions may seem overwhelming. The great thing about universal design, however, is it can be applied incrementally. For example, a department might begin by assigning an existing diversity committee or creating a new task force to explore ways of making the department more welcoming and accessible to everyone. Members of the advisory group could, as they go through the checklist provided in this publication, cross off items not applicable in their department, note as "done" those that have already been implemented, and label with a recommended deadline date for those they feel should be addressed by the department. Then, using the online version of this publication, they could order the items by date and add additional notes as appropriate. Presenting the timeline to the department decision-maker on diversity issues could be the next step. Once approval is secured, assigning staff and, when needed, securing budget funds could move the project along.

Additional Resources

An electronic copy of the most current version of this publication as well as additional useful brochures can be found online.12 For more information about applications of universal design, consult The Center for Universal Design in Education.13 The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice published by Harvard Education Press shares perspectives of UD leaders nationwide. To receive a 20% discount, visit the DO-IT website.14

Cited Web Resources

  1. www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/ udi/center-for-universal-design/ the-principles-of-universal-design
  2. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.html
  3. www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/
  4. www.ada.gov/checkweb.htm
  5. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_ss.html
  6. www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/
  7. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/www.html
  8. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html
  9. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html
  10. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/technology.html
  11. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/comp.access.html
  12. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/
  13. www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/
  14. www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
206-221-4171 (fax)
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane

Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This publication was developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #P333A050064. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2011, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.