Equal Access: Universal Design of Informal Learning
As increasing numbers of people with disabilities participate in academic opportunities and careers, the accessibility of classes, services, electronic resources, and events—including informal learning activities—increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who would like to engage in informal learning should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently. Informal learning is defined here as lifelong learning that takes place outside of the traditional classroom. The content of this publication can help informal learning leaders and staff get started in making their offerings accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 mandate that no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in public programs. This means that presentations, services, information resources, and other informal learning activities should be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Although the content in this publication does not provide legal advice, legal resources available to an organization and the US Office of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can provide guidance regarding disability-related legal mandates.
An approach to making facilities, information, and activities accessible to and usable by everyone is called universal design (UD). Universal design means that rather than designing for the average user, you design for people with differing native languages, gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and disabilities. It requires that staff and volunteers who conduct informal learning activities are trained to support people with disabilities, understand how to respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know who to contact regarding disability-related issues. The universal design of informal learning offerings will make everyone feel welcome and minimize the need for accommodations for individual participants.
Following three sets of principles can ensure that online and on-site aspects of an informal learning program are accessible to, usable by, and inclusive of all visitors. The seven principles of UD ensure that products and environments are equitable, are flexible, are simple and intuitive, offer perceptible information, have a high tolerance for error, require a low level of physical effort, and offer size and space for approach and use. Four principles for IT design underpin the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) guidelines; they require IT components to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The three principles for the Universal Design for Learning require that inclusive pedagogy and curriculum offer multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Details about a UD Framework underpinned by these three sets of principles can be found in A Framework for Inclusive Practices in Higher Education.
Guidelines and Examples
Addressing the following questions provides a good starting point for making your informal learning activities, facilities, and resources accessible and inclusive of everyone. This content does not provide legal advice. Contact the US Office of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) about legal mandates.
Planning, Policies, and Evaluation
Consider disability and other diversity issues as you plan and evaluate offerings and activities.
- Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old, first generation, individuals with low income, and other groups represented in the project planning processes in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
- Do policies and procedures ensure access to facilities, events, and information resources for people with disabilities?
- Are disability-related access issues and other diversity issues addressed in data collection, evaluation plans and instruments?
- Do you address issues related to the inclusion of participants with disabilities in grant proposals, perhaps by partnering with an organization with expertise in this area?
Information Resources and Technology
If your informal learning offerings use computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ accessible design, that staff members are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations when requested.
- 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 access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, you could include the following statement: “Our goal is to make materials and activities accessible to all participants. Please inform organization leaders 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 accessibly-designed electronic text?
- Are key documents provided in languages other than English?
- Are printed materials in your facility or at an event within easy reach from a variety of heights and without furniture blocking access?
- Do electronic resources, including web pages, adhere to accessibility standards adopted by your institution, project or funding source? The World Wide Web Consortium created the most commonly used guidelines, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. For example, provide text alternatives for images; make sure content can be accessed using the keyboard alone.
- Do you include a statement on your website affirming your commitment to accessible design? For example, you could include the following statement: “We strive to make our website accessible to everyone. We provide text descriptions of graphics, images, and photos. Video clips are open-captioned and audio-described. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome.”
- Do videos developed or used in the project have captions? Are they audio-described?
- Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of workstation to assist participants who use wheelchairs or are small or large in stature?
- Do you provide adequate work space for both left- and right-handed users?
- Is software to enlarge screen images and a large monitor available to assist people with low vision and learning disabilities?
- Do you provide a trackball to be used by someone who has difficulty controlling a traditional mouse?
- Are staff members aware of accessibility options (e.g., enlarged text feature) included in computer operating systems and of assistive technology available in the facility?
- Are procedures in place for a timely response to requests for assistive technology?
For more information about technology that is accessible to people with disabilities, consult Accessible Technology.
Facilities and Offerings
Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all participants, and that all potential characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
- Are all spaces welcoming, accessible, comfortable, and safe to 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 aisles kept wide and clear of obstructions for the safety of users who have mobility or visual impairments?
- Are wheelchair-accessible and child-friendly restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the facility?
- Is at least part of a service counter at a height accessible from a seated position?
- Is adequate light available?
- Are there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout the facility, including directions to accessible routes? When appropriate, are these signs marked in braille?
Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions and Universal Design of Physical Spaces for guidance in making specific facilities (e.g., engineering labs, makerspaces, computer labs) accessible.
Make sure staff are prepared to work with all visitors and participants.
- Are staff members familiar with the availability and use of 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 staff and contractors in specific assignment areas (e.g., web page development, video creation) knowledgeable about accessibility requirements and considerations?
- Are staff members aware of issues related to communicating with participants who have disabilities?
- Do staff deliver conference presentations and exhibits that are accessible to all participants?
For further information, consult the Communication Hints section at the end of this publication, Effective Communication: Faculty and Students with Disabilities, and/or Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Presentation.
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Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration with which you treat others. Here are some helpful hints when it comes to delivering a presentation, hosting an exhibit, and otherwise relating to people with disabilities.
- Ask a person with a disability if that person needs help before providing assistance.
- Talk directly to the person with a disability, not through their companion or interpreter.
- Refer to a person’s disability only if it is relevant to the conversation.
- Avoid derogatory slang or negative descriptions of a person’s disability. For example, “a person who uses a wheelchair” is more appropriate than “a person confined to a wheelchair.” A wheelchair is not confining—it’s liberating!
- Provide information in alternate means (e.g., written, spoken, diagrams).
- Do not interact with a person’s guide dog or service dog unless you have received permission to do so.
- Do not be afraid to use common terms and phrases, like “see you later” or “let’s go for a walk” around people with disabilities.
- Do not touch mobility devices or assistive technology without the owner’s consent.
- Do not assume physical contact—like handshakes, high-fives, or hugs—is okay.
- Understand that not everyone uses eye contact.
Blind or Low Vision
- Be descriptive. Say, “The computer is about three feet to your left,” rather than “The computer is over there.”
- Speak all of the projected content when presenting and describe the content of charts, graphs, and pictures.
- When guiding people with visual impairments, offer them your arm rather than grabbing or pushing them.
- Offer directions or instructions both orally and in writing. If asked, read instructions to individuals who have specific learning disabilities.
- Consider carrying on a long conversation with an individual who has a mobility impairment from a seated position.
- Listen carefully. Repeat what you think you understand and then ask the person with a speech impairment to clarify or repeat the portion that you did not understand.
Deaf or Hard of Hearing
- Face people with hearing impairments, and avoid covering your mouth, so they can see your lips. Avoid talking while chewing gum or eating.
- Speak clearly at a normal volume. Speak louder only if requested.
- Repeat questions from audience members.
- Use paper and pencil, or type things out on your cell phone, if the person who is deaf does not read lips or if more accurate communication is needed.
- When using an interpreter, speak directly to the person who is deaf; when an interpreter voices what a person who is deaf signs, look at the person who is deaf, not the interpreter.
- Provide information in clear, calm, respectful tones.
- Allow opportunities for addressing specific questions.
For more information about applications of universal design consult The Center for Universal Design in Education. Read the books Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Second Edition and Creating Inclusive Learning Opportunities In Higher Education: A Universal Design Toolkit, both published by Harvard Education Press and sharing perspectives of UD leaders nationwide.
Consult AccessISL for resources specifically related to the design of accessible informal learning. You’ll find links to literature, websites, and a Knowledge Base of Q&As, case studies, and promising practices. To engage in the AccessISL community of practice to engage with others interested in making informal learning more inclusive of people with disabilities, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
AccessISL supports efforts to develop a capacity building model for making informal STEM learning (ISL) opportunities more welcoming and accessible to individuals with disabilities. The project also prepares the University of Washington for the submission of a larger accessible ISL grant as collaborators develop and test model interventions, more fully develop replication steps, and gain insight from both people with disabilities and practitioners.
DO-IT / AccessISL
University of Washington
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Sheryl Burgstahler, PI
Meena Selvakumar, Co-PI
Scott Bellman, Project Director
This publication is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant #DRL-1906147). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding sources.
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