Do These 39 Simple Things to Make Your Student Life Opportunities More Accessible

What exactly does “accessibility” mean and why should we care?

Before diving into that conversation, we need to set the stage for how accessibility, inclusion, and ability became relevant to student affairs.

A Brief History of Access, Inclusion, and Disability in Student Affairs

The 20th century was a literal and figurative battlefield for social changes on a global stage, especially changes related to human and civil rights.

For starters, “the war to end all wars” kicked off the 1900s with a bang and was followed by oppressive global leadership regimes, economic depression, and the start of the nuclear age.

Long story short, the resulting rapid globalization of medical, informational, and communications technology changed the course of human history.

By the 1970s, the rights and needs of older people and people with disabilities were brought to the forefront due to these advancements. Around the world, governments and industries responded with the introduction of equal rights legislation and anti-discrimination legislation.

Colleges and universities were no exception to this trend.

As new laws and protections arose to promote social inclusion and prevent discrimination, higher education and student affairs professionals felt the pressure to meet the demands of creating accessible products, services, and environments.

Medical definitions of limitations and disabilities were reworked in the 1990s to be more systemically applicable and to remove barriers preventing students from being successful. Assistive technology became mainstream, improving and enhancing existing processes to make more things accessible.

Finally, a user-centered design framework flourished as a new lens through which we could better identify and address the needs, abilities, and limitations of students in our charge.

All of these changes together resulted in the birth of Universal Design.

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Universal Design: More Than One Size Fits All 

Universal Design (UD) is an intentional process focused on designing a product, service, or environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used by anyone and everyone to the greatest extent possible.

There are seven core principles for designing any environment (or any product or service in that environment) to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it, without hindering or diminishing the experience for anyone.

Often this means incorporating customizable features that can be adapted from user to user, smart features that learn a user’s preferences after multiple uses, and specialized solutions to meet particular needs.

Much like some of our profession’s foundational values, UD also supports student-friendly and convenient access. Additionally, UD prioritizes student dignity, rights, and privacy.

'Universal Design assumes that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special.' - Elaine Ostroff

UD principles have recently been getting more funding and support in higher education to provide inclusive, equivalent, equitable, and just experiences, activities, and services across our campuses.

Examples of this in action at my institution, Northern Arizona University, include:

  • Constructing new buildings with a ramp as the main entryway, instead of merely as an alternative to stairs
  • Partnering with the Center for University Access and Design to convert existing print and electronic resources to more accessible formats (including providing  text-based descriptions for images, graphs, and charts, as well as using a heading structure in all documents)
  • Incorporating Universal Design in Learning (UDL) practices into curriculum instruction and design, with the goal of maximizing access across learning preferences and styles
  • Using the SpeechStream toolbar for department websites to improve integration with screen readers and other assistive technologies
  • Updating marketing and branding standards to require alternate text captions (text-based descriptions of content) for electronic images, advertisements, and other materials
  • Supporting national and global trends to update icons, parking spots, and other representations of folx with physical disabilities (see below)
two icons representing wheelchair users (the left shows the classic symbol, seen on most wheelchair parking spaces today, and the right image is a nice icon representing a wheelchair athlete propelling themselves forward with their arms)

The Accessible Icon Project believes that changing the classic wheelchair-user symbol to an icon of a wheelchair athlete will lead to increased funding, rights provisions and guarantees, policies, and overall better conditions for people with disabilities.

We have made great strides over the past decades to reduce barriers faced by students. And with a more accessible and inclusive framework established, we now must turn our sights toward other crucial aspects of student affairs: leadership and engagement.

39 Tips

Universal Considerations

  • Research your institution’s top accommodation requests so you’ll be prepared for requests that may come your way  — like requests for translators or interpreters, real-time captioners, and notetakers.
  • Before any program, check out the venue to ensure that everyone will feel welcome, can get to the facility and maneuver within it, can access the content presented (including printed materials and electronic resources), and can fully participate in all presentation activities.
  • Schedule plenty of time for Q&A sessions. Use a microphone if there is one present and request one if not.
  • Make sure to repeat each question before answering it!

Designing and Delivering Presentations

  • Use high-contrast colors and themes for materials. Use color and other visual differences (like formatting, shapes, or font) to distinguish information.
  • Use large (no smaller than 16-point), simple, sans serif fonts (such as Arial, Verdana, or Helvetica). Make sure that your slides can be read from the back of a large room.
  • Minimize the amount of text on slides; students can often listen or read, but not both at the same time. 
  • Plan additional time for slide transitions or animations; if you’re audio or screen recording the presentation, fully describe them as they occur.
  • When you advance a slide, pause to let students read it before saying anything, then read the text aloud.
  • Define all terms and acronyms that may not be obvious to everyone in attendance; pretend you are presenting over the phone and describe the content verbally.
  • Avoid complex sentences, images, charts, or tables; make things as simple as possible and save the complicated stuff for the handout (in multiple formats).
  • Caption your video and audio clips and include the transcript if you send it out afterward.

Facilitating Activities and Workshops

  • Create an accurate and inviting description of your event for all marketing and promotional materials. Be sure to include students with diverse identity characteristics (across disabilities, race, ethnicity, gender, and more) to help students feel welcome from the start.
  • Promote a welcoming, non-judgmental learning environment; acknowledge that no one is truly an expert on anything beyond their own experiences.
  • Support multiple learning styles by incorporating activities that require different senses (visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic).
  • Summarize key points before transitioning topics to give audience members time to transition with you. Gently redirect any discussion that wanders off course.
  • Invite, rather than expect or demand, students to participate. Preemptively address potential accessibility issues (and reasonable alternatives) for group activities.
  • Do not assume that all students are okay with physical contact, including handshakes, high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs; ask for and obtain individual consent before engaging in such activities.
  • Incorporate an accessibility statement in calls for proposals, email blasts, event descriptions, syllabi, and other documents in order to normalize requesting accommodations.

Here’s an example of an accessibility statement I’ve used:

“My goal as your facilitator is to make the activities, information, and related materials in this workshop accessible to everyone. Please let me know if there are any accessibility barriers you encounter and/or if you would like to request accommodations that will make your experience more accessible.”

`you belong here` gif

Speaking Publicly and Leading Group Discussions

  • Speak slowly and clearly, avoid unnecessary jargon, and define terms or ideas that might be unfamiliar to audience members.
  • Face the audience and visually and auditorily engage with as many people as you can.
  • Understand that not everyone will return your eye contact or facial expressions, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not mentally engaged.
  • Illustrate key points with a variety of examples, real-life experiences, or stories that appeal to multiple demographic groups. For instance, you can use your own relevant experiences with privileged and/or marginalized identities or ask students to share theirs.
  • Before providing assistance to a student with a visible disability, ask if they would indeed like you to do so. Consult with the individual, your local disability resources office, or online for common accommodations and ways to respectfully navigate them.
  • Talk directly to students with disabilities, not through their companion or interpreter.
  • Ask for permission to interact with a student’s guide dog or service animal; know what the legal and appropriate questions are before doing so.
  • Don’t be afraid to use common terms and phrases, like “See you later!” or “Want to go for a walk?” around students with disabilities.

Planning and Hosting Student Conferences

  • If possible, waive registration fees or offer reduced prices to reduce financial barriers to potential attendees. Some considerations for adjustment are volunteering, sliding scales, and group discounts.
  • Make sure that your conference website is accessible to screen reader and closed captioning services, and has a responsive design for multiple types of devices.
  • Consider the accessibility of the whole venue, not just the entrance. For example, consider if seating is available in all rooms and spaces, identify if the restrooms are far from the breakout rooms, and place presenters with physical disabilities in rooms that minimize walking.
  • Arrange furniture for speakers and presenters so that everyone has a clear view of the main stage area. Keep aisles wide and clear of obstructions.
  • Ensure that the conference location is wheelchair-accessible. Arrange chairs and desks in breakout rooms so that wheelchair-users have multiple seating options.
  • Introduce a conference buddy system or icebreaker activity that pairs up participants who are attending alone. This can be especially useful for anyone with anxiety disorders, who might be new to networking, or who find speaking with strangers difficult for any other reason.
  • If any breakout sessions include individual activities that require computers or tablets, place at least one device on a height-adjustable table ahead of time.
  • Assign a quiet space with appropriate signage, dim lighting, pillows, blankets, and moveable furniture for participants to get away from everything. This can be helpful for nursing mothers, students with chronic, physical, or mental health disabilities, attendees seeking prayer space, or anyone who finds being in large groups overwhelming.
  • Schedule plenty of breaks throughout the day so that you won’t force attendees to choose between attending sessions or getting downtime, fresh air, or refreshments.
  • Accommodate food and dietary needs beyond allergy considerations. Check upcoming holiday schedules and ensure that your catering services have vegetarian, vegan, Kosher and Halal options.
  • Create a digital conference booklet in addition to paper copies; there are several free and premium conference and event planning apps available (My institution uses Guidebook and Socio).
  • Make sure to display ample print and electronic signage on the day of your event. Include the conference schedule, best wheelchair routes towards sessions, and ingredients for all meals or snacks.
'conferences are not lectures; they're a chance to meet and network. But if you don't know anyone, they can just become a listening experience.' - Sian Richardson

This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s a starting point to create and sustain environments, products, and services that support holistic student success.

What other processes, adjustments, or strategies do you use to make your student life opportunities accessible? Tweet us @themoderncampus and @Velocirathbone.

Nicholas Rathbone

About the author: Nicholas Rathbone (he/him) earned his master's degree in student affairs counseling at Northern Arizona University. He loves playing and collecting board games, producing a pun-based podcast and advocating for racial justice. Learn how we can help get your students involved.