Accommodations and Universal Design

Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington

Ability exists on a continuum, where individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, and manage their health. For a long time, children with disabilities were kept out of mainstream education. Often, people with disabilities have been seen as people who needed to be cured or rehabilitated. However, after World War II and the Civil Rights movement, a social justice oriented approach to disability emerged, supporting the right for people with disabilities to have full access to K-12 and postsecondary education.

In the K-12 system, children with disabilities are offered free, appropriate education in as integrated of a setting as possible. However, in postsecondary education, students with disabilities must meet course or program requirements, with reasonable accommodations as requested. Accommodations include extra time on tests, a book in an alternate format, and a sign language interpreter. Whereas accommodations are a reactive process for providing access to a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability, universal design (UD) is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability.  UD advocates value diversity, equity, and inclusion.

UD 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. UD is beneficial to all students, not just students with disabilities; for example, people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, and language also benefit from UD practices. Universally designed information technology has built in accessibility features and ensures compatibility with assistive technology. A universally designed website has text alternatives for graphics, content presented via text and visuals, captioned and transcribed video and audio content is captioned and transcribed, content and navigation that can be reached with the keyboard alone, spelled out acronyms. and other characteristics that benefit a diverse variety of visitors.

UD can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefiting all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. UD can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, interactions, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment. Examples include

  • Arranging seating so that everyone has a clear line of sight.
  • Avoiding undue attention being drawn to differences between students.
  • Using large, bold fonts with high contrast on uncluttered overhead displays and speaking all content aloud.
  • Providing multiple ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge; using multiple senses.
  • Avoiding unnecessary jargon; defining terms.
  • Providing scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines).
  • Providing materials in accessible formats.
  • Providing corrective opportunities.
  • Testing in same manner in which you teach.
  • Minimizing time constraints as appropriate.

Educators who effectively apply UD and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. DO-IT hosts a comprehensive resource, The Center for Universal Design in Education, which features guidance on how to apply UD to instruction, physical spaces, student services, and technology.