Equal Access: Universal Design of Neuroscience Education and Research

Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, utilizing many disciplines such as mathematics, biology, engineering, computer science, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, and medicine. As increasing numbers of people with disabilities participate in academic opportunities and careers, the accessibility of courses, labs, electronic resources, events, internships, and other neuroscience activities and resources increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who qualifies to participate in sponsored activities should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and its 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. These requirements apply to education and research opportunities offered by neuroscience programs.

Universal Design

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, genders, racial and ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and disabilities. The universal design of neuroscience offerings will make everyone feel welcome and minimize the need for special accommodations for individual participants.

Guidelines and Examples

Take steps to create an inclusive climate in all neuroscience undertakings. Addressing the following questions provides a good starting point for making your neuroscience facilities, information resources, and activities welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by everyone. This content does not provide legal advice. Contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) about legal mandates with respect to people with disabilities.

Planning, Policies, Recruitment, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate neuroscience services.

  • Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old students, and other groups represented in planning processes, internship positions, and recruitment in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
  • Do your 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

  • Ensure that computers, websites, videos, curriculum, and other resources are accessibly designed 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 our activities and 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 language(s) 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, or your project or funding source (e.g., the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0)? For example, are text alternatives provided for graphic images on web pages? Can the content be accessed by 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 images and video clips that are captioned and audio-described. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome.”
  • Do videos have captions? Are they audio-described? Learn more here.
  • 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 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 further guidance, consult the University of Washington IT Accessibility website  or more accessible technology resources.

Neuroscience Facilities and Activities

  • Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all participants, and accessibility issues are addressed in safety considerations.
  • 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 all spaces welcoming, accessible, comfortable, and safe for people with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages?
  • 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, that include directions to accessible routes? When appropriate are these signs marked in braille?
  • Are wheelchair-accessible and child-friendly restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the facility?

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions.

Engineering Labs, Makerspaces, and Computer Labs

  • Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of workstation in the lab? Can the height be adjusted from a seated position?
  • Can controls on equipment, computers, printers, scanners, and other information technology be reached from a seated position?
  • Are adequate work areas available for both right- and left-handed users?
  • Do you have low-cost equipment that can increase accessibility? This might include the following:
  • a trackball, wrist rests, and forearm rests;
  • keyboards with large-print or braille labels, or home-row key indicators;
  • software to enlarge screen images, along with a large monitor with a flexible positioning arm;
  • equipment labeled with tactile braille;
  • non-slip mats;
  • magnifying devices and extra lighting;
  • plastic cylinders and beakers;
  • step stools; and
  • tactile image creation tools.

Additional software and equipment might include the following:

  • text-to-speech, word prediction, and speech input software;
  • scanner and optical character recognition software;
  • talking equipment, including tape measures, thermometers, calculators, and multimeters that vocalize readings;
  • hearing protection; and
  • one-handed keyboards or “keyboard layout” software.

For accessibility guidelines for specific facilities (e.g., engineering labs, makerspaces, computer labs), see the collection of DO-IT resources.

Presentations, Exhibits, and Activities

Make sure faculty and staff are prepared to engage with all neuroscience participants, including those with disabilities.

  • 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?

Additional Resources

For more information about applications of universal design consult The Center for Universal Design in Education. The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Second Edition published by Harvard Education Press, shares perspectives of UD leaders nationwide.

About the CNT

The CSNE logo

The mission of the Center for Neurotechnology is to develop innovative ways to connect a deep computational understanding of how the brain adapts and processes information with the design of implantable devices that interact seamlessly with the nervous system. For further information, visit www.csne-erc.org or call 206-685-8915.


About DO-IT

The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs and careers such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. For further information, visit the DO-IT website, or call 206-685-3648 (v/TTY). Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.


This publication is based upon work supported by the NSF (Grant #EEC-1028725, Principle Investigator Rajesh Rao). It is adapted from an earlier publication, Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Project, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education (FIPSE Grant #P116D990138-01) and the NSF (Cooperative Agreement #0227995). 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.
Copyright © 2016 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.

Communication Hints

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.

Learning Disabilities

  • Offer directions or instructions both orally and in writing. If asked, read instructions to individuals who have specific learning disabilities.

Mobility Impairments

  • Consider carrying on a long conversation with an individual who has a mobility impairment from a seated position.

Speech Impairments

  • 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.

Psychiatric Impairments

  • Provide information in clear, calm, respectful tones.
  • Allow opportunities for addressing specific questions.