Computer Labs

Case Studies | Q&A's

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

(Adapted from the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs.)

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities that require computer use, accessibility of computing facilities is critical. The vision is simply equal access. Everyone who needs to use your lab should be able to do so comfortably.

To make your lab accessible, employ principles of universal design (UD). Universal design means that rather than designing your facilities and services for the average user, it is designed for people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that individuals using your lab may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. Preparing your program to be accessible to them will minimize the need for special accommodations for those who use your services and for future employees as well. Make sure everyone

  • feels welcome,
  • can get to the facility and maneuver within it,
  • is able to access materials and electronic resources, and
  • can make use of equipment and software.

Train staff to support people with disabilities. Have a plan in place to respond to specific accommodation requests in a timely manner.

Guidelines and Example

The following questions can guide you in making your computer lab 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. Consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer regarding relevant legal issues. Consultation with your regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can also help clarify issues.

First Steps

To begin the process of making your campus lab accessible to everyone, take the following steps.

  1. Include students with disabilities in planning and evaluating lab products and services.
  2. Develop policies and procedures that assure access to lab facilities, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities. Require that accessibility be considered in the procurement process.
  3. Assure that the facility and services are wheelchair-accessible and publications can be reached from a seated position.
  4. In key lab documents, include a statement about your commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations.
  5. Make signs with high contrast and large print.
  6. Make key documents available in formats accessible to those who have low vision and those who are blind (e.g., large print, Braille, electronic).
  7. Although a lab cannot be expected to have specialized equipment for every type of disability on hand, staff should make equipment available that they anticipate will be most often used and/or that is available at relatively low cost. This might include
    • an adjustable table for each type of workstation in your lab;
    • a wrist rest and forearm rest;
    • a trackball;
    • software to modify keyboard response, such as sticky keys, repeat rate, and keystroke delay;
    • software to enlarge screen images, along with a large monitor;
    • large-print keytop labels; and
    • web resources that adhere to accessibility standards or guidelines adopted by the lab.
  8. Once a lab is established and serves a large number of users, consider adding
    • text-to-speech software;
    • scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software;
    • CCTV to enlarge printed documentation;
    • Braille translation software and printer;
    • word prediction software;
    • hearing protectors;
    • keyboard guards to assist those who have limited fine motor skills;
    • alternative keyboards, mini-keyboards, or extended keyboards for users with mobility impairments;
    • speech input software; and
    • one-handed keyboards or "keyboard layout" software.
  9. Develop a procedure to assure quick responses to requests for adaptive technology that you do not currently have available or for other disability-related accommodations.
  10. Train staff on available accessible products in the lab, on appropriate communication, and on procedures for addressing requests for accommodation. Include accessibility issues in all training offered in the lab.
  11. Include people with disabilities when addressing accessibility in periodic lab evaluations.

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate your computer lab.

  • Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old students, and other groups represented on your staff, faculty, and student body in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
  • Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old students, and other groups included in lab planning and review processes and advisory committees in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
  • Do you have policies and procedures that ensure access to facilities, printed materials, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities?
  • Do policies and procedures require that accessibility be considered in the procurement process for software and other information technology? (See the federal government's Section 508 standards.)
  • Do you have a procedure to ensure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in your evaluation methods?

Physical Environment

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

  • Are there parking areas, pathways, and entrances to the building that are wheelchair-accessible and clearly identified?
  • Are all levels of the facility connected via an accessible route of travel?
  • Are there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout the lab? Is Braille signage available when appropriate?
  • Do elevators have both auditory and visual signals for floors? Are elevator controls accessible from a seated position and available in large print and Braille or raised notation?
  • Are wheelchair-accessible and child-friendly restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the lab?
  • Is at least part of a service counter or desk at a height accessible from a seated position?
  • Are aisles wide and clear of obstructions for wheelchair users who have mobility or visual impairments?
  • Is lighting adjustable by the individual?
  • Are window blinds available to reduce glare, especially on computer screens?
  • Are there quiet work or meeting areas where noise and other distractions are minimized. Are facility rules in place (e.g., no cell phone use) to minimize noise?
  • Can at least one public telephone be reached from a seated position?
  • Are telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY/TDD) available?

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions.

Lab Staff

Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.

  • Are staff members familiar with the availability and use of TTY/TDD, the Telecommunications Relay Service, assistive technology, and alternate document formats?
  • Do staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters?
  • Are all staff members aware of issues related to communicating with students of different characteristics regarding race and ethnicity, age, and disability? (See Communication Hints).
  • Do staff members have ready access to a list of on- and/or off-campus resources for students with disabilities?
  • Is the Webmaster knowledgeable about accessible web design?

Information Resources/Technology

Ensure that lab publications and websites welcome a diverse group and that information is accessible to everyone.

  • Do pictures in your publications and website include people with diverse characteristics with respect to race, gender, age, and disability?
  • In key publications, do you include a statement about your commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, you could include the following statement: "Our goal is to make all materials and services accessible. Please inform staff of accessibility barriers you encounter and request accommodations that will make activities and information resources accessible to you."
  • Are all printed software and hardware documentation and other publications available (immediately or in a timely manner) in alternate formats such as Braille, large print, and electronic text?
  • Are printed materials within easy reach from a variety of heights and without furniture blocking access?
  • Do electronic resources, including web pages, adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards adopted by your institution or your specific project or funding source? Section 508 Standards for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology and the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are most commonly used. For information about making your website accessible to everyone, consult the World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design video and publication.
  • Do video presentations used by the lab have captions? Audio descriptions?
  • Are accessibility issues incorporated into mainstream web design and other technology training for students and staff?
  • Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of workstation in the lab? Can the height be adjusted from a seated position?
  • Do some keyboards have large-print key labels, Braille labels, or home-row key indicators to help users with visual impairments locate keys?
  • Is screen enlargement software available for users with low vision? Is a large monitor available so that a larger amount of screen can be viewed while magnified?
  • Is a trackball available for those who have difficulty controlling a mouse?
  • Are a wrist rest and forearm rest available for those who require extra support while typing?
  • Is equipment marked with large-print and Braille labels?
  • Is software available to modify keyboard response, such as sticky keys, repeat rate, and keystroke delay (perhaps by making accessibility features of operating systems readily available)?
  • Is word prediction software available to reduce the number of keystrokes needed for text entry?
  • Can controls on computers, printers, scanners, and other information technology be reached from a seated position?
  • Are adequate work areas available for both right- and left-handed users?

A useful online interactive tool for learning about IT accessibility and for managing your lab's IT accessibility goals is the Information Technology in Education Accessibility Checklist. For more information about assistive technology, consult the Adaptive Technology videos and publications.

Check Your Understanding

Consider the following situation. When you put your course listings and schedules online, which of the following are examples of access barriers that students with disabilities may encounter? Choose a response.

  1. Schedule is a graphic without equivalent alternative text.
  2. Timetable does not contain clearly marked rows and headers.
  3. There is poor contrast between the background and the font, or information is conveyed solely by the use of color.
  4. Systems don't allow the use of keyboard functions in lieu of the mouse.
  5. Online registration is the only option available to students.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. Schedule is a graphic without equivalent alternative text.
    Having a schedule that is a graphic without a text equivalent is a barrier because people who are blind and use screen readers will have difficulty. Screen reader software does not recognize graphics or images. Each graphic needs a text equivalent description. For more information about accessible web design and the creation of alternative text, see the World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design publication and video.
  2. Timetable does not contain clearly marked rows and headers.
    A course schedule in a table format that does not contain clearly marked rows and headers is a barrier because students using screen readers cannot determine the meaning of data in the cell unless there is a row and header label.
  3. There is poor contrast between the background and the font, or information is conveyed solely by the use of color.
    Poor contrast and the use of color to convey important information is a problem for students with color blindness or low vision or for users accessing information in poorly or brightly lit areas. With poor contrast, it will be difficult for users to distinguish between the background and the text. Information conveyed by color alone may be indistinguishable by users who are color-blind.
  4. Systems don't allow the use of keyboard functions in lieu of the mouse.
    Applications that rely on the mouse and don't allow keyboard entry are a barrier for individuals who have limited or no use of their arms and hands and consequently are unable to use a mouse to access or enter information. They may rely on keyboard shortcuts or other alternative input devices.
  5. Online registration is the only option available to students.
    Students with limited technical ability or access to technology resources may need alternative methods for registration. Be sure that students have information about how to obtain assistance in registering, as well as how to register via phone, by mail, and in person.

The content of this web page is from Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs. Consult that document for the most current guidelines in a checklist format and to use as a handout for a presentation or meeting.

Additional Resources

The questions on this web page were field tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide by members of the DO-IT Admin team. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to sherylb@u.washington.edu.

An electronic copy of the most current version of this content can be found in the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs. The short video Equal Access: Computer Labs demonstrates key points summarized on this web page. A copy in DVD format can be purchased from DO-IT.

Consult the Conference Room Knowledge Base for questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices. A large collection of DO-IT publications, videos, and training materials can be found at DO-IT Publications, Videos, and Training Materials.