Equal Access: Universal Design of Physical Spaces

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D
A checklist for designing spaces that are welcoming, accessible, and usable

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities at all levels, the accessibility of campus facilities and physical spaces increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who visits your campus should be able to do so comfortably and efficiently.

Legal Issues

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 requires that “buildings and facilities that are designed, constructed, or altered with Federal funds, or leased by a Federal agency, comply with Federal standards for physical accessibility” (United States Department of Justice, 2005, p. 19).

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, 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 under any program or activity of a public entity. This means that physical spaces should be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Universal Design

To make your department or institution welcoming and accessible to everyone, employ principles of universal design (UD). Universal design means that rather than designing your facility and services for the average user, you design them for people with a broad range of abilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students, staff, faculty, and visitors may have characteristics that are not defined as disabilities, but may limit their ability to access physical spaces or information. These people could be short, tall, poor readers, left-handed, or speak a different language. Preparing your campus to be accessible to them will make it more usable by everyone and minimize the need for special accommodations. Make sure everyone

  • feels welcome,
  • can get to facilities and maneuver within them,
  • is able to fully benefit from resources and courses, and
  • can make use of equipment and software.

A Process for Universal Design

Key considerations to address when applying UD to a physical space at an institution of higher education are to plan ahead and to keep in mind the diversity of the campus community at all stages of a project. The following steps outline a process for the application of UD to physical spaces.

  1. Identify the space. Select a physical space (e.g., a student union building, dormitory, theater, athletic facility, classroom, or science lab). Consider the purpose of the space, location, dimensions, budget, and other issues that affect design.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population and then consider the diverse characteristics of potential members of the population who might use the space (e.g., students, staff, faculty, and visitors with diverse characteristics with respect to gender, age, size, ethnicity and race, native language, learning style, and abilities to see, hear, manipulate objects, read, and communicate).
  3. Involve consumers. Consider and involve people with diverse characteristics (as identified in Step 2) in all phases of the development, implementation, and evaluation of the space. Also gain the perspectives of potential users through diversity programs such as the campus disability services office.
  4. Adopt guidelines or standards. Review research and practice to identify the most appropriate design for the type of space identified in Step 1. Identify universal design strategies to integrate with the best practices in architectural design.
  5. Apply guidelines or standards. Apply universal design strategies in concert with other best practices, identified in Step 4, to the overall design of the physical space (e.g., aesthetics, routes of travel) and to all subcomponents of the space (e.g., signage, restrooms, and sound, fire, and security systems).
  6. Plan for accommodations. Identify processes to address accommodation requests by individuals for whom the design of the space does not automatically provide access (e.g., cafeteria staff members should know how to assist customers who are blind).
  7. Train and support. Tailor and deliver ongoing training and support to staff who manage the physical space. Share institutional goals with respect to diversity and inclusion and practices for ensuring welcoming, accessible, and inclusive experiences for everyone using the space. Explain the reasoning behind design decisions so that design integrity is maintained over time (e.g., make sure that staff know not to configure furniture in such a way that it creates physical barriers to wheelchair users).
  8. Evaluate. Include universal design measures in periodic evaluations of the space, evaluate the space with a diverse group of users, and make modifications based on feedback. Provide ways for ongoing input to occur (e.g., through online and printed instruments and signage that requests suggestions from facility users).

Guidelines and Examples

Following are examples within categories where universal design can be applied to a physical space at your institution. This content does not provide legal advice. To help clarify legal issues, consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer or call your regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate spaces.

  • Do you have policies and procedures that ensure access to facilities, printed materials, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities?
  • Is accessibility considered in the development process?
  • Do you have a procedure to ensure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in your evaluation methods?


Make decisions that foster a campus climate that is inclusive of all students, staff, faculty, and visitors.

  • Are people with diverse characteristics, including various types of disabilities, included in the planning process?
  • Is the environment appealing and welcoming to those with a broad range of cultures, ages, abilities, and other characteristics?

Entrances and Routes of Travel

  • Make physical access welcoming and accessible to people with a variety of abilities, genders, and ages.
  • Are there convenient, wheelchair-accessible parking spaces and routes of travel to facilities and within facilities?
  • Are entryways sheltered?
  • Are outdoor lights with motion sensors installed near entrances?
  • Do sensors automatically open exterior doors?
  • Are lever handles rather than knobs used for doors?
  • Are gently sloping walks integrated into the design rather than steps and ramps that segregate individuals with physical disabilities?
  • Are there are ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout the physical space?
  • Is adequate lighting available?

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions. For computing facilities, consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication.

Fixtures and Furniture

Provide fixtures and furniture that can be used by all employees, students, and visitors.

  • Are fixed or fold-down seats available in showers?
  • Are levers installed for sink handles?
  • Are mirrors, sinks, and towel dispensers located so they are usable by individuals with a wide range of body sizes from standing or seated positions?
  • On appliances and other equipment, are front-mounted, easy-to-operate controls with labels in large, high-contrast print used?
  • Do electrical outlets and light switches (with dimmers) allow access from standing or seated positions?
  • In classrooms, are furniture and fixtures adjustable in height and allow for flexible arrangements of different learning activities and student groupings?

Information Resources and Technology

If your physical space uses computers as information resources, ensure that systems employ accessible design, that staff members are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations.

  • Does the location of the publications allow access from seated and standing positions?
  • Are directional and information kiosks reachable from standing and seated positions?
  • Do vendors provide accessibility features (e.g., captioned video, compatibility with assistive technology) in computers and software?
  • Are adjustable-height tables used at each type of workstation to assist students who use wheelchairs or are small or large in stature?
  • Is adequate work space provided for both left- and right-handed users?
  • For those who have difficulty controlling a mouse, are trackballs available?
  • 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?
  • Have procedures been put in place for a timely response to requests for assistive technology?

Note that your organization need not have special technology on hand for every type of disability but should have available assistive technology that can benefit many people. For more information about assistive technology consult the videos and publications found here.


Design spaces to minimize risk of injury.

  • Are nonslip walking surfaces used?
  • Have emergency systems been installed that incorporate audio and visual warnings?
  • Are aisles wide and clear of obstructions for the safety of users who have mobility or visual impairments?


Develop a system for staff to address accommodation requests by individuals for whom the space design does not automatically provide access.

  • Are procedures in place for requesting disability-related accommodations in signage, publications, and information kiosks?
  • Do facility staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations?

Checklist Updates

To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to sherylb@uw.edu.

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.

Additional Resources

An electronic copy of the most current version of this publication as well as additional useful brochures can be found here.  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. To learn more or order online, visit the DO-IT website.


Burgstahler, S. (2015). Universal Design of Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Second Edition. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

United States Department of Justice. (2005) A guide to disability rights laws. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

About DO‑IT

DO‑IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the success of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs and careers, such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO‑IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the State of Washington.

For further information, to be placed on the DO‑IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages, contact:

Box 354842
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (toll free voice/TTY)
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane
206-221-4171 (fax)
Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.


The contents of this brochure were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #P333A050064. However, these contents do not necessarily reflect the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Copyright © 2017, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.