Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services

[PDF graphic] PDF Version (368 KB)      -      get Acrobat Reader

A checklist for making campus services welcoming, accessible, and usable

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities at all levels, the accessibility of admissions offices, libraries, computer labs, counseling and tutoring centers, and other student services increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who needs to use your services should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 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. This means that student services as well as academic programs must be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Universal Design

To make your student services operation accessible and useful to everyone, employ principles of universal design (UD). Universal design 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, and 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 if they have disability-related questions.

A Process for Universal Design

Universal design of all student services is a long-term goal. Deliberate, small steps can make that goal attainable for your service department. Below you will find a series of steps to lead you through the re-design of an existing service or the creation of a new one. As you travel through the phases of implementing universal design, remember to plan ahead and keep the diverse needs of your campus' population at the forefront.

  1. Identify the service. Select a student service (e.g., library, tutoring center, career services office). Consider the purpose of the campus unit, specific services and resources provided, facility constraints, budget, and other issues that impact the range and delivery of services provided.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population and then consider the diverse characteristics of those who might potentially use the service (e.g., students and other visitors with diverse characteristics with respect to gender; age; size; ethnicity and race; native language; learning style; and abilities to see, hear, manipulate objects, read, and communicate).
  3. Involve consumers. Involve people with diverse characteristics (as identified in Step 2) in all phases of the development, implementation, and evaluation of the service. Also, gain perspectives of students through diversity programs such as the campus disability services office.
  4. Adopt guidelines or standards. Review research and best practices to identify specific strategies for the delivery of an effective service (e.g., best practices for housing and food services, career services, a tutoring center, or other services as identified in Step 1). Create or select existing universal design guidelines and standards for the service. Integrate universal design practices with other best practices within the field of service.
  5. Apply guidelines or standards. Apply universal design strategies in concert with other best practices, both identified in Step 4, to the overall design of the service, all subcomponents of the service, and all ongoing operations (e.g., procurement processes, staff training) to maximize the benefit of the service to students with the wide variety of characteristics identified in Step 2.
  6. Plan for accommodations. Develop processes to address accommodation requests (e.g., arrangements for a sign language interpreter) from individuals for whom the design of the service does not automatically provide access.
  7. Train and support. Tailor and deliver ongoing training and support to student service staff.
  8. Evaluate. Include universal design measures in the evaluation of the service; evaluate the service with a diverse group of students; and make modifications based on their feedback. Provide ways to collect ongoing input from service users (e.g., through online and printed instruments and communications with staff).

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide you in making your campus service unit universally accessible. This content does not provide legal advice. To clarify issues, consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer, or call the 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 Removal1 for more suggestions. For computing facilities, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication.2


Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.

Information Resources and Technology

If your service unit uses computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ 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 adaptive technology, consult the videos and publications.6


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

Checklist Updates

This checklist was field-tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide.7 The results of 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 the most current version of this publication as well as additional useful brochures are available online.8 A 14-minute video, Equal Access: Student Services9, demonstrates key points summarized in this publication. An online version may be freely viewed or purchased in DVD format. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos and publications for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.

The Student Services Conference Room11 includes a collection of documents and videos to help you make student services accessible to everyone. They include 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 the Center for Universal Design in Education website, or the book Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice, published by Harvard Education Press. To receive a 20% discount on your order of this book through DO-IT, visit the DO-IT website.10

Cited Web Resources

  1. www.ada.gov/checkweb.htm
  2. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html
  3. www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/
  4. www.w3.org/WAI/
  5. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/www.html
  6. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/at.html
  7. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/admin.html
  8. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/
  9. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/ea_student.html
  10. www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html
  11. www.uw.edu/doit/Conf/
  12. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.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 and the accompanying video were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #P333A020044. However, the 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, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2004, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.