Equal Access: Universal Design of Your ADVANCE Project

An instructor in a wheelchair presents with a mic and laptop.

A checklist for making projects welcoming and accessible

The National Science Foundation (NSF) seeks to broaden the implementation of evidence-based systemic change strategies that promote equity for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) faculty in academic workplaces and professions through ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions. Projects under this program work to reduce systemic inequities that exist in organizational policy, practice, culture, and climate. Many ADVANCE projects promote systemic changes that make STEM departments more welcoming and inclusive of women faculty; some have expressed a need for assistance in ensuring that the issues of women with disabilities are fully addressed in ADVANCE projects. This publication addresses that need. It was created by the AccessADVANCE project, which serves to increase the successful participation and advancement of women with disabilities in STEM faculty careers.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act and its 2008 Amendments mandate that no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of their disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in public programs. This means that courses, services, information resources, and project activities should be accessible to qualified individuals with disabilities. While we can offer recommendations, this publication does not provide legal advice; for such advice, contact campus resources or the U.S. Office of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Universal Design

Universal design (UD) is a proactive approach that makes facilities, information, instruction, activities, and other facets of a project accessible to and usable by a diverse audience, including individuals with disabilities. UD is defined as “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." This means that rather than designing for the average person, design for people with differing native languages, gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and abilities. Universally designing your ADVANCE project will make its resources, trainings, meetings, and other offerings welcoming and accessible to a broad audience, including those with disabilities, and minimize the need for accommodations for individual participants.

Guidelines and Examples

Addressing the following questions provides a good starting point for making your ADVANCE project facilities, information technology, resources, and activities accessible to people with disabilities.

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate ADVANCE project offerings.

  • In your project proposal and implementation do you ensure there is expertise in disabilities, accommodations, and universal design through a staff member, consultant, or partnership with an organization that specializes in this area? Do you include costs for accommodations in the proposal?
  • Do project policies and procedures ensure access to facilities, events, and resources for people with disabilities?
  • Does a simple, transparent procedure to ensure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations exist and are staff and participants made aware of these services?
  • Do project policies and procedures that support people with disabilities move beyond minimum levels of compliance and accommodations for individuals to focus more broadly on universal design?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in research design, data collection, and evaluation instruments? Do you include disability along with other requests for demographics on surveys and present this data in project reports and published articles?
  • If you have an ADVANCE project, have you considered submitting a request for supplemental funding to support access to and engagement in STEM learning, research, and workforce development for students, postdoctoral scholars, or faculty and staff with disabilities? See Persons with Disabilities - STEM Engagement and Access for more information.

Information Resources and Technology

If your ADVANCE project uses digital tools and documents for the delivery of activities and information resources, ensure that they are accessibly designed, that staff members are aware of accessible design practices, and that systems are in place to make accommodations when requested.

  • Do pictures in your publications and websites include people with diverse characteristics that include disability?
  • Are all publications designed to be accessible to people with blindness, learning disabilities, motor impairments, and other disabilities? Do project web pages adhere to accessibility standards adopted by your institution, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?
  • Do key publications and websites include a statement about your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, a project website could include the following statement: “The [project name] values diversity, equity, and inclusion and strives to make project facilities, technology, courses, information resources, and services accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Please inform [project staff] of accessibility barriers you encounter and request accommodations that will make facilities courses, services, and information resources accessible to you.”
  • Do videos developed or used in the project have accurate captions?
  • Are technology used for project communication and collaboration accessible?
  • Are there flexible policies that allow participants to attend meetings and activities remotely? Are important meetings recorded, captioned, and shared for those who cannot attend?

For more information, consult Accessible Technology at uw.edu/accessibility.

Project Facilities

Ensure physical access, comfort, and safety for individuals with disabilities within environments used by your ADVANCE project. Make them welcoming to participants with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages.

  • Are all levels of facilities connected via wheelchair-accessible routes? Are accessible routes of travel easy to find? Do restroom, entrance, and other commonly used doors have sensors or buttons for automatic opening? Are they regularly inspected to ensure functionality?
  • Do elevators have auditory, visual, and tactile signals and controls accessible from a seated position?
  • Are there parking areas, pathways, and entrances to the building that are wheelchair accessible and clearly identified?
  • 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?
  • Are adjustable-height tables, ergonomic chairs, and adequate/adjustable light available?
  • Are there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout facilities? Is braille signage used where appropriate?

For more information consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal and the collection of DO-IT resources regarding the design of makerspaces, science labs, and other specific spaces.


Make sure project staff are prepared to deliver accessibility-designed activities and work with all project participants.

  • 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., event management, 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? See Communication Hints at the end of this publication.
  • Do staff deliver on-site and online courses, conference presentations, and exhibits that are accessible to all participants (e.g., with captions on video presentations, accessible documents, slides with large print and high contrast)? For guidance consult Universal Design of Instruction.

Checklist Updates

To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggested improvements to doit@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-Related Disabilities

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

Speech-Related Disabilities

  •  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.

Mental Health Conditions

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

Additional Resources

The AccessADVANCE publication Equal Access: Making STEM Departments More Accessible to and Inclusive of Faculty with Disabilities shares guidance on designing an inclusive STEM department. For more information about applications of universal design consult The Center for Universal Design in Education (CUDE). CUDE documents that may be relevant to your ADVANCE project (including those that apply to the design of meetings, professional organizations, conference exhibits, presentations, and online learning) can be found online on our website.

About AccessADVANCE

AccessADVANCE serves to increase the successful participation and advancement of women with disabilities in STEM faculty careers. The AccessADVANCE leadership team includes the following individuals:

University of Washington
Sheryl Burgstahler, DO-IT Center
Cecilia Aragon, Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering
Brianna Blaser, DO-IT Center
Lyla Crawford, DO-IT Center

North Dakota State University
Canan Bilen-Green, Faculty Affairs and Equity
Cali Anicha, Research Associate
Mark Coppin, Disability Services

Box 354842
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Much of the content of this publication comes from an earlier document, 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). It is also based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant # HRD-2017017 and HRD-2017054. 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 © 2022, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.