by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

(Adapted from the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Advising.)

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities at all levels, accessibility to student services, including advising, is of increasing importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who needs to use student services should have access to them.

Advising services are an important aspect of most students' educational experiences. There are many different kinds of advisors-faculty advisors, advisors in a specific academic department, general advisors-and they should all be aware of unique issues of people with disabilities and other groups so that they can communicate effectively and provide sound advice as students plan their studies. Considering how their disabilities might impact academic and career plans is essential to the success of students with disabilities.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 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 student services as well as academic programs must be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Physical Distance and Length of Time Between Classes

Physical distance and time between classes should be considered when planning a course schedule with a student who has a disability. Many campuses are large and, for a student with a mobility impairment or a student who is blind, it can be difficult to get from one class to the next promptly if there is too little time between them.

Length of time between classes can also be a concern for a person with a learning disability. A student who is receiving extended exam time as an accommodation in one class should not schedule another class immediately following. Otherwise, the student will be late to the second class on days when there are tests in the first class. Having sufficient time between classes also facilitates learning by allowing a student to review the content presented and organize notes immediately after each class session.

Format and Time of Classes

An issue to consider for all students, but particularly for students with learning disabilities, Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is class format. It may be difficult for some students to succeed in several lecture classes in the same quarter.

Students with health or other impairments may need to avoid classes where attendance at every class session is essential; online courses should be considered. These students may also have trouble attending classes that take place at certain times of the day, such as very early in the morning or in the evening. Their advisors can help them develop appropriate schedules.

Universal Design

To make advising services accessible to everyone, employ principles of universal design. 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, disabilities, and other characteristics such as age, reading ability, learning style, native language, culture, and so on. Keep in mind that students and visitors may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. Preparing your program to be accessible to them will make it more usable by everyone and minimize the need for special accommodations for those who use your services and for future employees as well. Ensure that everyone feels welcome, and can

  • get to the facility and maneuver within it,
  • communicate effectively with support staff,
  • access printed materials and electronic resources, and
  • fully participate in events and other activities.

Train staff to support people with disabilities, by responding to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner and knowing whom they can contact if disability-related questions arise.

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide you in making your advising services universally accessible. Your disabled student services office may also be able to assist you in increasing the accessibility of your unit. This content does not provide legal advice. Consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer regarding relevant legal issues. Consultation with your regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can also help clarify issues.

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate services.

  • Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, students with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations, young and old students, and other groups represented on your staff in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
  • Do you have policies and procedures that assure access to facilities, printed materials, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities?
  • Is accessibility considered in the procurement process?
  • Do you have a procedure to assure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in your evaluation methods?

Physical Environments and Products

Assure physical access, comfort, and safety. Create an environment that is welcoming to visitors with 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 there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout the office?
  • Do elevators have both auditory and visual signals for floors? Are elevator controls accessible from a seated position and available in large print and Braille or raised notation?
  • Are wheelchair-accessible restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the office?
  • Is at least part of a service counter or desk at a height accessible from a seated position?
  • Are aisles kept wide and clear for wheelchair users and protruding objects removed or minimized for the safety of users who are visually impaired?
  • Are there private meeting areas where students can discuss disability-related needs confidentially?
  • Is adequate light available?
  • Are there quiet work or meeting areas where noise and other distractions are minimized?
  • Are facility rules in place (e.g., no cell phone use) to minimize noise?
  • Are telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY/TDD) available?

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


Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.

  • Are all staff members familiar with the availability and use of a TTY/TDD, 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?
  • Do staff members have ready access to a list of on- or off-campus resources for students with disabilities?
  • Are all staff members aware of issues related to communicating with students of different characteristics regarding race and ethnicity, age, and disability? (See Helpful Communication Hints).

Information Resources

Assure that publications and websites welcome a diverse group and that information is accessible to everyone.

  • Do pictures in your publications and website include people with diverse characteristics with respect to race, gender, age, and disability?
  • In key publications and on your website, do you include a statement about your commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, you could include the following statement: "Our goal is to make all of our materials and services accessible. Please inform staff 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 electronic text?
  • Are printed materials within easy reach from a variety of heights and without furniture blocking access?
  • Do electronic resources, including web pages, adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards adopted by your institution or your office? Section 508 Standards for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology and the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are most commonly used. For information about making your website accessible to everyone, consult the World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design video and publication.
  • Are videos used by the advising office captioned or audio described?

Computers, Software, and Assistive Technology

Make technology accessible to all visitors. Some advising offices use computers as information resources. Staff members should be aware of accessibility options (e.g., enlarged texts included in computer operating systems). Your center need not have special technology on hand for every type of disability but should have available assistive technology that can benefit many people. Start with a few key items, and add new technology as students request it.

  • Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of workstation to assist students who use wheelchairs or are small or large in stature?
  • Do you provide adequate work space for both left- and right-handed users?
  • Are large-print key labels available to assist students with low vision?
  • Is software to enlarge screen images and a large monitor available to assist students with low vision and learning disabilities?
  • Do you provide a trackball to be used by someone who has difficulty controlling a mouse?
  • Are wrist and/or forearm rests available to assist some people with mobility impairments?


Ensure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by the advising office.

  • Are events located in wheelchair-accessible facilities? Is the accessible entrance clearly marked?
  • Is information about how to request disability-related accommodations included in publications promoting events?
  • Is accessible transportation available if transportation is arranged for other participants?

Check Your Understanding

Which of the following issues should be considered when advising of students with disabilities?

  1. Distance between classes
  2. Length of time between classes
  3. Content of classes
  4. Format of classes


  1. Distance between classes
    Yes. Physical distance between classes is an important thing to consider, particularly for people with mobility impairments, students who are blind, and students with learning disabilities.
  2. Length of time between classes
    Yes. Length of time between classes is an important consideration for people with disabilities who are receiving additional test time as an accommodation.
  3. Content of classes
    The decision regarding the content of classes to enroll in should be based on the interests and goals of each student. Students with disabilities should not be advised to avoid specific content areas simply because of a disability. For example, if a student who is blind is interested in taking a course with a lot of visual content, they should be encouraged to work with the instructor and staff of disabled student services in order to develop strategies for accessing the visual content.
  4. Format of classes
    Yes. The format of classes can impact the success of students with disabilities. For example, some people with learning disabilities should not have too many lecture classes in one quarter or semester.

The content of this web page is from Equal Access: Universal Design of Advising. Consult that document for the most current guidelines in a checklist format and to use as a handout for a presentation or meeting.

Additional Resources

The questions on this webpage were field tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide by members of the DO-IT Admin team. The results of a nationwide survey to test face-validity of checklist items led to further refinement of this checklist. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to

An electronic copy of the most current version of this content can be found in the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Advising. A short video, Equal Access: Student Services, demonstrates key points summarized in this publication. It may be freely viewed online and purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Consult DO-IT Streaming Video Presentations with Support Publications for access to this and other videos that may be of interest.

Consult the Conference Room Knowledge Base for questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices.