Equal Access: Universal Design of Physical Spaces

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A checklist for designing spaces that are 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 campus facilities and physical spaces increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who visits your campus should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently.

Legal Issues

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 requires that "buildings and facilities that are designed, constructed, or altered with Federal funds, or leased by a Federal agency, comply with Federal standards for physical accessibility" (United States Department of Justice, 2005, p. 19).

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 physical spaces should be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Universal Design

To make your department or institution welcoming and accessible 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, ages, reading levels, learning styles, languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students, staff, faculty, and visitors may have characteristics that are not defined as disabilities, but may limit their ability to access physical spaces or information. These people could be short, tall, poor readers, left-handed, or speak a different language. Preparing your campus to be accessible to them will make it more usable by everyone and minimize the need for special accommodations. Make sure everyone

A Process for Universal Design

Key considerations to address when applying UD to a physical space at an institution of higher education are to plan ahead and to keep in mind the diversity of the campus community at all stages of a project. The following steps outline a process for the application of UD to physical spaces.

  1. Identify the space. Select a physical space (e.g., a student union building, dormitory, theater, athletic facility, classroom, or science lab). Consider the purpose of the space, location, dimensions, budget, and other issues that affect design.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population and then consider the diverse characteristics of potential members of the population who might use the space (e.g., students, staff, faculty, and 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. Consider and involve people with diverse characteristics (as identified in Step 2) in all phases of the development, implementation, and evaluation of the space. Also gain the perspectives of potential users through diversity programs such as the campus disability services office.
  4. Adopt guidelines or standards. Review research and practice to identify the most appropriate practices for the design of the type of space identified in Step 1. Identify universal design strategies to integrate with these best practices in architectural design.
  5. Apply guidelines or standards. Apply universal design strategies in concert with other best practices identified in Step 4 to the overall design of the physical space (e.g., aesthetics, routes of travel) and to all subcomponents of the space (e.g., signage, restrooms, and sound, fire, and security systems).
  6. Plan for accommodations. Identify processes to address accommodation requests by individuals for whom the design of the space does not automatically provide access (e.g., cafeteria staff members should know how to assist customers who are blind).
  7. Train and support. Tailor and deliver ongoing training and support to staff who manage the physical space. Share institutional goals with respect to diversity and inclusion and practices for ensuring welcoming, accessible, and inclusive experiences for everyone using the space. Explain the reasoning behind design decisions so that design integrity is maintained over time (e.g., make sure that staff know not to configure furniture in such a way that it creates physical barriers to wheelchair users).
  8. Evaluate. Include universal design measures in periodic evaluations of the space, evaluate the space with a diverse group of users, and make modifications based on feedback. Provide ways for ongoing input to occur (e.g., through online and printed instruments and signage that requests suggestions from facility users).

Guidelines and Examples

Following are examples within categories where universal design can be applied to a physical space at your institution. 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 spaces.


Make decisions that foster a campus climate that is inclusive of all students, staff, faculty, and visitors.

Entrances and Routes of Travel

Make physical access welcoming and accessible to people with a variety of abilities, 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

Fixtures and Furniture

Provide fixtures and furniture that can be used by all employees, students, and visitors.

Information Resources and Technology

If your physical space uses computers as information resources, ensure that 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.3


Design spaces to minimize risk of injury.


Develop a system for staff to address accommodation requests by individuals for whom the space design does not automatically provide access.

Checklist Updates

To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to sherylb@u.washington.edu.

Additional Resources

An electronic copy of the most current version of this publication as well as additional useful brochures can be found online.4 For more information on universal design, consult The Center for Universal Design in Education.5 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 on your order of this book through DO-IT, visit the DO-IT website.6


Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (Eds.). (2008). Universal design of higher education: From principles to practice. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

United States Department of Justice. (2005) A guide to disability rights laws.7 Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Cited Web Resources

  1. www.ada.gov/checkweb.htm
  2. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html
  3. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/at.html
  4. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/
  5. www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/
  6. www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html
  7. www.ada.gov/cguide.pdf

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)
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


The contents of this brochure were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #P333A050064. However, these contents do not necessarily reflect the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.