Equal Access: Universal Design of Professional Organizations

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A checklist for making professional organizations inclusive

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities participate in academic opportunities and careers, the accessibility of professional organizations increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; every member or potential member of your organization should feel welcome and be able to use your resources and participate in sponsored activities.

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 professional organizations be accessible to all participants and potential participants.

Universal Design

An approach to making facilities, information, and activities accessible to and usable by everyone is called universal design. Universal design (UD) means that rather than designing for the average user, you design for people with differing native languages, genders, racial and ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and disabilities. The universal design of your offerings will make everyone feel welcome and minimize the need for special accommodations for those who participate in your activities or access your information resources. It is also important to make sure that staff and volunteers are trained to support people with disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know who to contact regarding disability-related issues.

Guidelines and Examples

Addressing the following questions provides a good starting point for making the information resources and activities of your professional organization universally accessible. This content does not provide legal advice. Contact the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) about legal mandates.

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate services.

Information Resources

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

Physical Environments and Products

Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal6 for more suggestions. For computing facilities, consult the Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication.7 For more information about making conferences accessible, consult Planning an Accessible Conference published by SIGACCESS and written by Shari Trewin.8

Staff and Volunteers

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


If your organization uses computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ accessible design, that you are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations.

For more information on this topic, consult the Working Together videos and publications.9

Checklist Updates

This checklist was field-tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide.10 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@u.washington.edu.


For more information about applications of universal design consult www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.html or the Center for Universal Design in Education.11 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.12

Cited Web Resources

  1. www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/
  2. www.w3.org/WAI/
  3. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/www.html
  4. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/vid_sensory.html
  5. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/real_con.html
  6. www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/checkweb.htm
  7. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html
  8. www.sigaccess.org/community/accessible_conference/
  9. www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/at.html
  10. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/admin.html
  11. www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/
  12. 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 is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant # HRD 0227995) and the Department of Education (Grant # P333A050064). Any questions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Government.

Copyright © 2012, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.