Equal Access: Universal Design of Tutoring and Learning Centers

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A checklist for making tutoring and learning centers welcoming and accessible to everyone

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities, the accessibility of tutoring and learning 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, 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. This means that postsecondary student services as well as academic programs must be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Universal Design

To make your tutoring and learning center accessible, 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, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students, employees, and visitors may have disabilities such as learning, visual, speech, hearing, or mobility impairments. Designing your program to be accessible to all 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 work with students who have disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know whom to contact if they have disability-related questions. Staff who tutor or teach students should understand the learning issues faced by students with disabilities, especially those that affect gaining and demonstrating knowledge.

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide you in making your campus services universally 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 services.

Physical Environments and Products

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

Tutors and learning facilitators are encouraged to be responsive to the needs of all students. However, students with disabilities may have some additional instructional needs that they should discuss with their tutor or facilitator. The student with a disability is the best source of information regarding necessary accommodations. In postsecondary settings, it is the student's responsibility to request special accommodations if desired (usually to a disabled student services office), but a tutor or facilitator can make a student comfortable by inquiring about special needs or challenges. Following are examples of typical academic accommodations for students with different types of disabilities.

Instructional Needs

All students benefit from working with information and handouts made available in accessible, electronic format. In addition, the following accommodations should be considered.

Low Vision


Hearing Impairments

Learning Disabilities

Mobility Impairments

Health Impairments

Keep in mind that it will take the disabled student services office time to convert learning materials to alternate formats (e.g., audiotape, Braille, large print). Consult this office for further information regarding accessibility for students with disabilities and a fuller understanding about campus services.


Make sure all staff are prepared to work with all program participants.

Information Resources and Technology

If your learning center 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.

For more information about assistive technology, consult the Adaptive Technology videos and publications at www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/at.html.


Ensure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by your learning center.

Checklist Updates

This checklist was field-tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide (see www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/admin.html). 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 can be found at www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/. A 14-minute video, Equal Access: Student Services, demonstrates key points summarized in this publication. It may be freely viewed online at www.uw.edu/doit/Video/ea_student.html and purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Consult www.uw.edu/doit/Video/ for access to this and other videos that may be of interest. The Equal Access: Computer Labs and Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone videos and publications are particularly relevant to tutoring and learning centers. 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.edu/doit/Conf/ 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 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.

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


The contents of this publication and the accompanying video were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #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, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.