Accommodations vs. Universal Design

A "person with a disability" means "any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment." Examples of disabilities that can impact a student in postsecondary education include, but are not limited to, AIDS, cancer, Cerebral Palsy, Diabetes, Epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, loss of limbs, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, psychiatric disorders, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and visual impairments.

Many disabling conditions limit individuals' abilities to perform specific life tasks. Some of these conditions are visible, while other conditions, such as learning or psychiatric disabilities, are "invisible." Individuals with the same diagnosis or label may present a range of symptoms and functional limitations. For example, one individual with Cerebral Palsy may need to use a wheelchair, may be unable to speak, and may require a personal assistant for self-care. Another person with Cerebral Palsy may walk with a cane and manage all personal care tasks and communication independently. Likewise, an individual with a learning disability may have difficulties with reading, writing, math, and/or processing verbal information. Clearly, each individual has unique needs in postsecondary education settings. In all cases, the institution has a responsibility to provide program access to qualified students with disabilities.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities and mandate the provision of reasonable accommodations to ensure access to programs and services. Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, redesigning equipment, assigning aides, providing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, redesigning services to accessible locations, altering existing facilities, and building new facilities. Reasonable accommodations do not include personal devices, such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and glasses.

Students with disabilities who desire accommodations typically must register with the disability student services office and provide proper documentation of their disabilities. This office determines what accommodations, if any, are reasonable for the student. Ultimately, a student with a disability requires alternative arrangements only when faced with a task that requires skill that her disability precludes.

Universal Design

The design of a product, service, or environment that is flexible and meets the needs of a wide range of users can eliminate or minimize the need for specific accommodations for a person with a disability. In contrast, a mismatch between the individual with a disability and the environment, attitudes, or society can create or exacerbate barriers. For example, an individual with a mobility impairment may fully participate in most life activities if the buildings, transportation, and facilities he uses are wheelchair-accessible. However, when he cannot accept a job or attend a lecture because the work site or presentation location is inaccessible, he is being excluded as a consequence of an architectural barrier that prohibits access. Similarly, captioning on videos eliminates the need for an accommodation for a deaf student.

Universal design is "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." When designers apply universal design principles, their products, environments, and services meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Universal design principles can be applied to many facilities, products, and services.

Employing universal design principles does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for accommodations such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in program planning will assure full access for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student using text-to-speech software seeks access to this information. Planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run. Letting all students have access to service brochures on an accessible website can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternate formats. See Universal Design in The Conference Room for more information on universal design.