Presentation Summaries

Eric Chudler presents in front of a PowerPoint.

Accommodations and Universal Design

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

Ability exists on a continuum, where all individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, or manage their health. In K-12 education in the United States, every child is ensured a free, appropriate education in as integrated of a setting as possible. However, in postsecondary education, students must meet whatever course or program requirements apply and are offered reasonable accommodations as needed.

Accommodations and universal design are two approaches to access for people with disabilities. Both strategies contribute to the success of students with disabilities. Accommodations are a reactive process and provide access for a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability. Students might be provided with extra time on tests, books in alternate formats, or sign language interpreters.

In contrast, universal design is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability and is beneficial to all students. Universal design practices can be used to create products and environments to be usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A universal design approach can benefit people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, language, or ability. Applying universal design to information technology includes building in accessibility features and also ensuring compatibility with assistive technology. In other words, a universally designed website would, for example, have text alternatives for graphics, present content via both text and visuals, include captions and transcripts for all video and audio content, ensure that all content and navigation can be reached with the keyboard alone, and spell out acronyms.

Universal design of instruction results from an attitude that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefits to all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. Universal design 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 the following:

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

Educators who effectively apply universal design and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. They minimize, but do not eliminate, the need for accommodations.

Universal Design of an ERC

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

ERCs integrate engineering research and education with technological innovation to transform national prosperity, health, and security. As increasing numbers of people with disabilities participate in academic opportunities and careers, the accessibility of courses, labs, electronic resources, events, internships, and other ERC activities increases in importance. Our goal is to provide equal access to everyone who qualifies to use ERC resources and participate in sponsored activities.

AccessERC has created a publication titled Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Engineering Research Center, which contains a checklist for creating a welcoming and accessible ERC. This checklist covers policies and recruitment, information technology, facilities and activities, and various communication methods. Review a copy of this checklist and check out other resources that AccessERC has to offer. 

Access Technology Used by People with Disabilities

Presenter: Gaby de Jongh

Assistive technology (AT) is software, hardware, devices, or equipment that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT includes both devices and services. Many “high tech” and “low tech” devices are available to assist people with disabilities overcome barriers to completing daily tasks, such as such as reading and writing documents, communicating with others, and searching for information on the Internet.

People with mobility disabilities use a variety of technologies. Some technology assists individuals with little or no use of their hands in using a standard keyboard. Individuals who have use of one finger, or have access to a mouth- or head-stick or some other pointing device, can control the computer by pressing keys with the pointing device, and software utilities can create “sticky keys” and other options to enhance accessibility.

People who are blind or have low vision can not access visual materials and either need a system that can read text out loud or can create braille with an embosser or a refreshable display. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, captions and translators are often needed for videos or when interacting with other people. People with learning disabilities use a wide variety of technology depending on their specific disabilities; examples include software that can read text aloud or input text from speech, dictation, and alternative color options.

An example of an individual who uses multiple forms of high tech assistive devices is Stephen Hawking. He uses a combination of eye tracking, augmentative communication device, head array, and power wheelchair; check it out here. For more examples of how computer technology and AT can assist people with disabilities, read the publication Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology.

Web Accessibility

Presenter: Terrill Thompson

When we’re creating digital content such as web pages, videos, or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web including assistive technologies, mobile devices, and more; everyone has different levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard. Since the World Wide Web was invented, HTML has had alt tags and other accessibility features as one of its standards. WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, second version) aims to bring all web content up to an accessible level so that all users have equivalent access. WCAG 2.0 follows four main principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is defined by more specific guidelines, and those are further defined by specific success criteria, which are assigned Level A, AA, or AAA, with Level A success criteria including the most critical issues for accessibility. Level A success criteria are fairly easy to meet. In resolution agreements and legal settlements regarding inaccessible IT, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights have identified WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a reasonable target to ensure websites are accessible.

A push for accessible tools and features will help make all web content more accessible. Using accessible themes in WordPress and Drupal is an easy way to spread accessibility across campus and utilize necessary accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) can be used to analyze accessibility, and it communicates the interface elements to users and designers. Canvas and similar learning management systems need to be made accessible; faculty need to learn about headings and alt text and the right questions to ask about accessibility.

For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:

Promising Practices to Engage People with Disabilities at the CNT

Presenter: Eric Chudler and Scott Bellman

Promising practices of the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT), an ERC at the University of Washington (UW) engage people with disabilities in all aspects of the Center. Further details are available online in a publication called Promising Practices That Engage People with Disabilities in the CNT. The strategies were presented in five broad categories:

  • Recruitment and Engagement
    • Develop strategic partnerships, including those with disability and veteran service units, and employ joint recruitment strategies.
    • Recruit people with disabilities, including veterans, onto advisory boards and leadership teams.
    • Develop outreach activities and programs especially for students with disabilities, including veterans, and also recruit individuals with disabilities into programs for all students.
  • Communication
    • Promote disability awareness.
    • Highlight the achievements of people with disabilities.
    • Include images of people with disabilities and information on how to request accommodations in promotional materials.
    • Encourage faculty, staff, and student leaders to engage in disability-related conferences and training opportunities.
    • Share disability-related practices at conferences.
  • Accessibility of Facilities, Information Resources, Products, and Activities
    • Apply universal design and provide reasonable accommodations.
    • Consult with individuals with disabilities in design of labs and facilities.
    • Conduct website, document, and video accessibility reviews and remediate.
  • An Inclusive Climate
    • Consider disability as a diversity issue.
    • Provide mentoring opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
    • Address disability-related issues in grant proposals to enhance and expand ERC initiatives.
  • Data Collection and Evaluation
    • Collect disability status along with other demographic information in application and evaluation forms.
    • Analyze data to determine the effectiveness of activities for people with disabilities.

Disability Identity: Understanding Disability Culture

Presenter: Kayla Brown

In our society, there are many barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating or feeling included. Faculty and other service providers often address accessibility issues only when determined by disability services or their campuses. Attitudes and stereotypes influence every aspect of the lives of people with disabilities, including social inclusion, educational opportunities, healthcare, self-esteem, and so much more. This presentation covered the following topics:

  • Representation of disabilities in mainstream media and social media
  • The disability rights movement and signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Prevalent stereotypes about disabilities
  • Access to education and the historical oppression of individuals with disabilities
  • Grass roots activism and the disability community
  • Ableism and victim blaming
  • Various models of disability (e.g., social model, medical model, rehabilitation model)

How we define disability and how that contributes to systems of oppression impacting people with disabilities is very important. There is a long history to the disability rights movement that serves to push back on these attitudes and promote the creation of a more welcoming and accessible world.

Conduct an Accessibility Review of an Engineering Facility

Presenter: Scott Bellman

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities in engineering, accessibility of engineering teaching and research labs is critical. The ultimate goal is simply equal access. Hands-on learning in lab courses is an important component of an engineering degree. Everyone who needs to use departmental spaces and labs should be able to do so comfortably.

To make your department accessible, employ principles of universal design. Universal design means that rather than designing your facilities and services for the average user, they are designed for people with a broad range of abilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that individuals using a lab may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. Preparing your space and curriculum to be accessible to all will minimize the need for special accommodations.

When designing an engineering facility, consider your planning and policies, evaluation, the physical environment, lab staff knowledge, access to informational resources, equipment and technology, and instructional strategies. To learn more about how to make these aspects accessible, review the brochures Equal Access of an Engineering Department and Equal Access: Universal Design of an Engineering Lab.

As part of this presentation, participants visited the Paul G. Allen Computer Science and Engineering Building to review the University of Washington BioRobotics Lab ( Technology and lab space were reviewed for accessibility using the above checklists.

AccessERC Products, Activities, and Initiatives

Presenter: Scott Bellman

AccessERC is funded by the National Science Foundation as a supplement to the CNT. The ultimate goal of AccessERC is to increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in STEM and improve these fields with their perspectives and expertise.

AccessERC will host Capacity Building Institutes for ERC leaders, maintain a Community of Practice comprised of at least eighty ERC representatives, host regular conference calls, provide consultation to ERCs, offer seed grants for individual activities at ERCs that support project goals and objectives, develop an online Knowledge Base and project website, create case studies of individuals with disabilities who have engaged in ERCs, produce a video promoting replication of project activities, and develop products and publications related to project goals. For more information and to view these materials, visit the AccessERC website.