Tutoring and Learning Centers

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

(Adapted from the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Tutoring and Learning Centers.)

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities, the accessibility of tutoring and learning centers and other student services increases in importance. The goal is simply equal access; everyone who needs to use your services 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 guarantee equal access for individuals with disabilities to all services and programs offered by and through postsecondary institutions. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/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 postsecondary student services as well as academic programs must be accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Universal Design

To make your tutoring and learning center accessible, 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, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students, employees, and other visitors may have disabilities such as learning, visual, speech, hearing, and/or mobility impairments. Designing your program to be accessible to all 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. Make sure everyone feels welcome, and can

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

Train staff to work with students who have disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know whom they can contact if they have disability-related questions. Staff who tutor or teach students should understand the learning issues faced by students with disabilities, especially those that affect gaining and demonstrating knowledge.

The following questions can guide you in making your tutoring and learning center universally accessible. Your disabled student services office may also be able to help 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 included in the center's service planning and review processes and advisory committees in numbers proportional to those of the campus or community?
  • 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 procurement process?
  • Is your staff prepared to respond to requests for accommodations in a timely manner?
  • 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

  • Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics 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 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/desk 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?
  • Is adequate light available?
  • Are window blinds available to reduce glare, especially on computer screens?
  • Are there quiet work and/or meeting areas where noise and other distractions are minimized and/or facility rules in place (e.g., no cell phone use) that minimize noise?
  • Are telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY/TDD) available?

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

Tutors and learning facilitators are encouraged to be responsive to the needs of all students. However, students with disabilities may have some additional instructional needs that they should discuss with their tutor or facilitator. The student with a disability is the best source of information regarding necessary accommodations. In postsecondary settings, it is the student's responsibility to request special accommodations if desired (usually to a disabled student services office), but a tutor or facilitator can make a student comfortable by inquiring about special needs or challenges. Following are examples of typical accommodations for students with different types of disabilities.

Instructional Needs

All students benefit from working with information and handouts made available in accessible, electronic format. In addition, the following accommodations should be considered.

Low Vision

  • Large-print handouts.
  • Computers equipped to enlarge screen characters and images.


  • Audiotaped, Brailled, or electronic-formatted notes and handouts.
  • Verbal descriptions of visual aids.
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials.
  • Computers with large monitors and with optical character readers, speech output, Braille screen displays and printer output.

Hearing Impairments

  • Interpreters, FM systems, captioned videos.
  • Use of visual aids.
  • Written instructions, demonstration summaries.
  • Visual warning system for emergencies.
  • Use of electronic mail for communication and private discussions.

Learning Disabilities

  • Note takers, audiotaped sessions.
  • Extra time for sessions.
  • Visual, aural, and tactile instructional demonstrations.
  • Computers with speech output, spell checker, and grammar checker.

Mobility Impairments

  • Note takers.
  • Tutoring sessions in accessible locations.
  • Adjustable tables; materials located within reach.
  • Computers equipped with special input device (e.g., speech input, Morse code, alternative keyboards).

Health Impairments

  • Note takers.
  • Flexible scheduling or attendance requirements.
  • Extra time for sessions.
  • Use of email for communication and discussion.

Keep in mind that it will take the disabled student services office time to convert learning materials to alternate formats (e.g., audiotape, Braille, large print). Consult this office for further information regarding accessibility for students with disabilities and a fuller understanding about campus services.


Make sure all staff are prepared to work with all program participants.

  • Are all staff members familiar with availability and use of a TTY/TDD, the Telecommunications Relay Service, assistive technology, and alternative document formats?
  • Do staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters?
  • Are all staff members aware of issues related to communicating with students of different characteristics regarding race/ethnicity, age, and disability? (See Helpful Communication Hints at the end of this publication.)
  • Are staff members aware of the benefits of universal design of instruction and accommodations for students with different types of disabilities?
  • Do staff members have ready access to a list of on- and/or off-campus resources for students with disabilities?

Information Resources and Technology

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

  • 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 universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, "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 key documents provided in a language(s) other than English?
  • 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 center? Section 508 Standards for 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.
  • Do you ask vendors about accessibility features (e.g., captioned video, compatibility with assistive technology) before purchasing computers and software?
  • 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 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 more information about assistive technology, consult the Adaptive Technology videos and publications.


Assure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by your learning center.

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

The content of this web page is from Equal Access: Universal Design of Tutoring and Learning Centers. 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 web page were field tested at more than twenty post-secondary 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 sherylb@u.washington.edu.

An electronic copy of the most current version of this content can be found in the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Tutoring and Learning Centers. 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. The video Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction also includes content relevant to Tutoring and Learning Centers. 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.

Principles of universal design can be applied to all aspects of your services. For more information consult Applications of Universal Design.