By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
(Adapted from the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Financial Aid.)
As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue postsecondary educational opportunities, the accessibility of financial aid offices and other student services is of increasing importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who needs to use your services should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently.
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/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.
To make your financial aid operation accessible, employ principles of universal design. 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,
- can get to the facility and maneuver within it,
- is able to access materials and electronic resources, and
- can participate in events and other activities.
Train staff to support people with disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know whom they can contact on campus if they have disability-related questions.
The following questions can guide you in making your campus services 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.
Planning, Policies, and Evaluation
Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate services.
- Are people with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old students, and other groups included in financial aid service planning and review processes and advisory committees?
- Do you have policies and procedures that assure access to facilities, printed materials, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities?
- Is accessibility considered in the procurement process?
- Do you have a procedure to assure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?
- Are disability-related access issues addressed in your evaluation methods?
Facility and Environment
Assure physical access, comfort, and safety.
- 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 office?
- 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 restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the office?
- Is a least part of a service counter/desk at a height accessible to a wheelchair user?
- Are aisles kept wide and clear for wheelchair users and protruding objects removed or minimized for the safety of users who are visually impaired?
- Is lighting adjustable by the individual?
- Are window blinds available to reduce glare, especially on computer screens?
- Are there quiet work and/or meeting areas where noise and other distractions are minimized and/or facility rules (e.g., no cell phone use) to minimize noise?
- Are telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY/TDD) available?
Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions. For computing facilities, consult the Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication.
Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.
- Are all staff members familiar with the availability and use of a 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/ethnicity, age, and disability? Consult Helpful Communication Hints for content in this area.
Assure that 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, "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 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 service unit? The 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.
Computers, Software, and Assistive Technology
If used make technology accessible to all visitors. Some financial aid offices use computers as information resources. Staff members should be aware of accessibility options (e.g., enlarged texts included in computer operating systems). The organization need not have special technology on hand for every type of disability, but should have available assistive technology that can benefit many people. Start with a few key items, and add new technology as students request it.
- Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of workstation to assist students who use wheelchairs or are small or large in stature?
- Do you provide adequate work space for both left- and right-handed users?
- Are large-print key labels available to assist students with low vision?
- Is software to enlarge screen images and a large monitor available to assist students with low vision and learning disabilities?
- Do you provide a trackball to be used by someone who has difficulty controlling a mouse?
- Are wrist and/or forearm rests available to assist some people with mobility impairments?
For more information about assistive technology, consult the Adaptive Technology videos and publications.
Assure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by the financial aid office.
- Are events located in wheelchair-accessible facilities? Is the accessible entrance clearly marked?
- Is information about how to request disability-related accommodations included in publications promoting events?
- Is accessible transportation available if transportation is arranged for other participants?
The content of this web page is from Equal Access: Universal Design of Financial Aid. Consult that document for the most current guidelines in a checklist format and to use as a handout for a presentation or meeting.
The questions on this web page were field tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide by members of the DO-IT Admin team. The results of a nationweide survey to test face-validity of checklist items led to further refinement of this checklist. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An electronic copy of the most current version of this content can be found in the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Financial Aid. A short video, Equal Access: Student Services, demonstrates key points summarized in this publication. It may be freely viewed online and purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Consult DO-IT Streaming Video Presentations with Support Publications for access to this and other videos that may be of interest.
Consult the Conference Room Knowledge Base for questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices.