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Universal Design vs. Accommodation

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 impairment, 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, an 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, assigning aides, providing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, locating services to accessible locations, and altering existing facilities. Reasonable accommodations do not include the promise of personal devices such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and glasses.

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 class because the work site or classroom environment is inaccessible, he is being excluded as a consequence of an architectural barrier that prohibits access. Similarly, captioning on videotapes eliminates the need for an accommodation for a deaf student.

Students with disabilities who desire academic accommodations must register with the disability student services office and provide proper documentation of their disabilities. This office will determine the accommodations, if any, that are reasonable for the student. Many students with disabilities do not identify themselves as having a disability because they do not feel that they need academic accommodations. The need for accommodations depends on the students' abilities and the course requirements. Ultimately, a student with a disability requires alternative arrangements only when faced with a task that requires skill that her disability precludes.

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 and services meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services, including instruction.

"In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact."(Research Connections, Number 5, Fall 1999, p. 2, Council for Exceptional Children.)

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will assure full access to the content 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 re-development is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class. Planning ahead can be less time-consuming in the long run. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on an accessible Web site can eliminate the need for providing materials in alternative formats. See Universal Design for more information on universal design of instruction.

When designing classroom instruction or a distance learning class, strive to create a learning environment that allows all students, including a person who happens to have a characteristic that is termed "disability," to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Universal design principles can apply to lectures, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, Web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Which of the following is an example of universal design of instruction that benefits all students and might eliminate or reduce the need for accommodations for students with a disability? Choose a response.

  1. Selecting fieldwork sites that are wheelchair accessible.
  2. Providing a notetaker.
  3. Making your class notes and outline available electronically.
  4. A flexible attendance policy.
  5. Requesting open-captioned videotapes.

Feedback on each response:

  1. Yes. Selecting fieldwork sites that are wheelchair accessible can eliminate the need for alternative assignments or last minute modifications for some students with mobility impairments. BACK
  2. No. A notetaker is an accommodation required by some students with disabilities. BACK
  3. Yes. This will provide greater access to your course materials and make it easier, for example, for students who are blind to transcribe information into Braille or use adaptive technology to read the text with speech output software. BACK
  4. No. This might be an appropriate accommodation for a student with a health impairment. However, an attendance policy that it too flexible for too many people may become misused or problematic. BACK
  5. Yes. Open captioning is essentially the same as subtitling. It requires no special equipment. Many students can benefit from open captioning, including students with hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and those for whom English is not their first language. BACK