Equal Access: Universal Design of Career Services

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A checklist for making the career services welcoming, accessible, and usable

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D

The number of students with disabilities entering and completing education at all levels has increased dramatically in recent years, yet people with disabilities are still underrepresented in challenging careers. Barriers to employment include inadequate support systems, little interaction with successful role models, lack of access to technology that can increase independence and productivity, and, most significantly, low expectations on the part of people with whom they interact.

Participation in work-based learning experiences, such as internships and cooperative education activities, can be integral to success after graduation. All students benefit from opportunities work-based learning affords to network with potential employers, explore career options, and apply skills learned in the classroom. For students with disabilities, the benefits of work experiences may be even greater than for their nondisabled peers. Work-based learning experiences give students practice in identifying appropriate accommodations for specific situations and disclosing and discussing their disabilities as they relate to the performance of job tasks. However, students with disabilities access work-based learning programs at a lower rate than students without disabilities.

This publication is designed to help career services and campus units that offer internships, cooperative education, service learning, and other work-based learning opportunities to better serve students with disabilities and other underrepresented groups.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. Educational institutions must provide equal access to programs and services, and career development programs and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. However, employers and career development professionals are not required to initiate discussions about accommodations. Instead, students or employees should disclose his or their disabilities and request specific accommodations when needed.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment. Cerebral palsy, specific learning disabilities, muscular dystrophy, AIDS, head injuries, and hearing and visual impairments are some but not all of the disabilities covered by this legislation.

People with conditions of the same name often have very different abilities and challenges. An accommodation is necessary only when a disability impedes the performance of a specific academic or employment task. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation that will allow a qualified applicant or employee to perform the essential functions of the position. A qualified applicant or employee with a disability is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Accommodations may include the provision of a sign language interpreter for job interviews, staff meetings, and training sessions; assistive technology; or a modification to the physical layout of the work site.

Educational institutions and employers are not required to make an accommodation if it causes an undue hardship. An undue hardship is an action that requires significant difficulty or expense in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation. Rarely is an accommodation so costly that undue hardship can be claimed. Accommodations often cost less than anticipated. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a toll-free service that advises employers and employees about job accommodations, reports that most accommodations cost very little.

Although inquiries about disabilities should not be made in a job interview, employers can ask applicants questions related to their ability to perform specific job functions as long as they ask similar questions of other candidates. For example, if a student is applying for an internship as a web designer, the employer may ask about her ability to meet deadlines, use computer software, and perform specific job tasks.

Career development professionals, like employers, should not ask a student if he has a disability. Even if he volunteers information related to his disability to a career counselor or work-based learning coordinator, staff should not share that information with an employer unless the student has given written permission to do so. Since potential clients may have disabilities that they do not disclose to you, it is a good idea to offer disability-related service information in brochures and websites for all students.

Universal Design

To make your career services operation accessible, employ principles of universal design(UD). UD means that rather than designing your facility and services for the average user, you design them for people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students and other visitors may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, or mobility impairments. Preparing your program to be accessible to them will make it more usable by everyone and minimize the need for special accommodations for those who use your services and for future employees as well. Make sure everyone feels welcome, and can

Train staff to support people with disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know whom they can contact on campus if they have disability-related questions.


Many students with disabilities see internships and cooperative education experiences as optional program components that are not designed for them. To increase their participation, directly market your programs to students with disabilities. The office that serves students with disabilities at your institution may be your best resource. Provide this office with copies of your informational publications so that they can assist you in recruiting students with disabilities. They may be able to pass out program information to new students during orientation meetings and intake interviews. A short introduction to your services during an orientation will alert students to the importance of participating in work-based learning experiences. The disabled student services office may also be aware of student groups that would welcome a presentation from your office staff.

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide you in making your career services universally accessible. Your disabled student services office may also be able to assist you in increasing the accessibility of your unit. This content does not provide legal advice. To 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 services.

Physical Environments and Products

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

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal at www.ada.gov/checkweb.htm for more suggestions. For computing facilities within your service unit, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication at www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html.


Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.

Information Resources and Technology

If career services uses computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ accessible design, that staff members are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations.

Note that your organization need not have special technology on hand for every type of disability but should have available assistive technology that can benefit many people. For more information about assistive technology, consult the videos and publications at www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/at.html.


Ensure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by your organization.

Checklist Updates

Checklist drafts were field-tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide (see www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/admin.html). A nationwide survey to test face-validity of checklist items led to further refinement of the checklist. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to sherylb@uw.edu.

Additional Resources

An electronic copy of this publication as well as additional useful brochures can be found at www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/. Short videos, Equal Access: Student Services and Access to the Future: Preparing Students with Disabilities for Careers, demonstrate key points summarized in this publication. They may be freely viewed online and purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Consult www.uw.edu/doit/Video/ for these and other videos that may be of interest. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos and publications for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.

The Student Services Conference Room at www.uw/doit/Conf/ includes a collection of documents and videos to help you make student services accessible to everyone. You'll find checklists for career services, distance learning, computer labs, recruitment and admissions, registration, housing and residential life, financial aid, libraries, tutoring and learning centers, and student organizations. The Student Services Conference Room also includes a searchable Knowledge Base of questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices.

For more information about applications of universal design consult www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.html or The Center for Universal Design in Education at www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/. 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 www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html.

The publication Access to the Future: Preparing College Students with Disabilities for Careers (www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Careers/future.html) lists resources for making careers accessible.

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
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This publication and the accompanying video were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #H078C60047 and #P333A020044. 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, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.