Practices for Preparing Students with Disabilities for College & Careers in the United States
by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
Affiliate Professor, College of Education, University of Washington
Founder and Director, UW Access Technology Center and DO-IT Center

For International Workshop on Special Needs Education
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 22, 2011

Individuals with disabilities experience less success in postsecondary education and careers than their nondisabled peers in the United States (National Council on Disability and Social Security Administration, 2000; National Science Foundation, 2011; Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2001). This paper summarizes challenges faced by K-12 and postsecondary students with disabilities, technology issues, relevant legislation, accommodations and universal design, and adaptation and replication of evidence-based practices.

Challenges for Students with Disabilities

Challenges faced by individuals with disabilities pursuing education and careers include:

Many of these access challenges have well-documented solutions, including guidelines and standards to ensure information technologies are accessible (World Wide Web Consortium, 2008). The documented success of some individuals with disabilities in challenging fields demonstrates that opportunities do exist for those who develop academic, technical, and self-determination skills (DO-IT, 1993-2011; Stern & Woods, 2001).

Diversity issues in educational settings include physical, sensory, learning, attention, and communication differences such as those described below.

Technology Access Issues

Consumers with disabilities identify barriers to computer access to include lack of knowledge of stakeholders about appropriate assistive technology and lack of funding to purchase assistive technology. In addition, challenges reported by the National Council on Disability (2000, p. 25) persist; "the rapid acquisition of educational technology has not sufficiently addressed the needs of students with disabilities. Access for students with disabilities is just beginning to be identified as an important factor when purchasing educational technology." Consequently, products with inaccessible characteristics are often purchased, inaccessible electronic resources and educational software is developed and purchased, and inaccessible facilities are constructed. Other barriers to technology access for individuals with disabilities include lack of trained teachers and professionals to evaluate assistive technology, difficulties in locating assistive technology to test by individuals with disabilities, confusion about existing laws and policies regarding assistive technology and accessible information technology, gaps in laws and policies that fund assistive technology, and the bureaucracy of public programs and insurance companies. Clearly, work needs to be done before the full potential of today's technology to support academic and career success for students with disabilities is realized. (Burgstahler, 2003)


All school-aged youth are provided a free, public education in an integrated setting in most cases. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures services to children with disabilities throughout the nation and governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. Both K-12 and postsecondary institutions are covered entities with respect to civil rights legislation-both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act-that ensures that qualified individuals receive equal access to instruction and services, with or without reasonable accommodations. In particular, because of differences in laws and funding for technology between precollege and college environments, even students who are lucky enough to gain access to empowering technology in precollege settings, may not be allowed to take it with them when they exit high school.

Accommodations and Universal Design

There are two basic approaches to access for students with disabilities-accommodations and universal design. An accommodation is an alternate format, service, and/or adjustment for a specific individual (e.g., providing a sign language interpreter). Universal design has been identified as a proactive strategy for addressing the increasing diversity-with respect to gender, race/ethnicity, and disability-in postsecondary student bodies. Universal design is defined as "the design of products & environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." The Center on Universal Design in Education describes how universal design can be applied to instruction, physical spaces, technology, and services (DO-IT, n.d.). Examples include accessibly designed websites, building designs that ensure wheelchair access, multiple level service counters. Specific examples of universal design of instruction include arranging seating so that everyone has a clear line of sight, avoiding drawing undue attention to a difference, using large, bold fonts on uncluttered overhead displays and speaking aloud all content presented, providing multiple ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge, using multiple senses, providing outlines an other scaffolding tools, and providing materials in accessible electronic formats (Burgstahler, 2008b).

DO-IT Practices

The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center was founded at the University of Washington with a grant from the National Science foundation in 1992. The Center engages with institutions and organizations in the United States and other countries to adapt its evidence-based practices to promote the success of people with disabilities in college studies and careers; the development and use of technology for people with disabilities; and the application of universal design of instruction, physical spaces, technology, and services. Four primary sources are consulted when selecting and fine-tuning practices and promising interventions to employ through the DO-IT Center and its collaborators. Details and references can be found on the Evidence-Based Practices pages of the DO-IT website (DO-IT, n.d.). A summary of the four sources of evidence is provided below.

Literature Review. Project staff use standards of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences' What Works Clearinghouse (WWC, n.d.) to assess the rigor of research evidence on the effectiveness of interventions being considered. Unfortunately, many of the most relevant studies reported in the literature do not have random samples, well-matched control groups, or other characteristics that would result in a high evidence rating by WWC. DO-IT staff also consult reports regarding projects that serve to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in challenging career fields. For example, DO-IT projects have been significantly influenced by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program, which was established in 1991 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to increase the number of racial/ethnic minority students who successfully complete baccalaureate degrees and continue on to graduate studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). LSAMP activities, which have been externally evaluated, include interventions in four areas: student-centered pre-college development, student-centered postsecondary development, faculty-centered training, and institution/department-centered reform. Keys to success for LSAMP projects have been identified to be summer bridge programs, research experiences, mentoring, drop-in centers, caring staff, and alliance structure. Like LSAMP, DO-IT fosters connections within an institution (e.g., between peers, between students and faculty); facilitates connections outside of the institution (e.g., between precollege and postsecondary partners, between community college and university partners, between students and employers); is significantly engaged in resource-sharing and co-sponsoring events; and uses "graduates" of previous projects as a rich resource for mentors, speakers, project employees, and volunteers. Other published reports, books, and articles related to the following areas of intervention are included on DO-IT's Evidence-based Practices web pages: overall project guidance, college preparation, transition, self-determination; efficacy of comprehensive programs over isolated efforts; broadening participation of students with disabilities in STEM; mentoring, peer support, and learning communities; research experiences, internships, and other work-based learning; and serving veteran students with disabilities.

Outcomes of Prior Projects Hosted by DO-IT. Since 1992, DO-IT project research and evaluation findings have added to evidence that supports the implementation of practices employed in new projects. These projects include AccessSTEM (n.d.), that promotes the success of students with disabilities in STEM and AccessComputing (n.d.), that promotes their success more specifically in computing and IT fields. Data sources include staff observations, project records, the ongoing AccessSTEM/AccessComputing/DO-IT Longitudinal Transition Study (ALTS), project reports, and published articles. Results, many published in peer-reviewed journals, add rich detail to the more general strategies reported in the literature. Topics addressed include training faculty, training student service personnel, making websites and distance learning programs accessible to students and instructors with disabilities, serving post-9/11 veterans with disabilities, and collaborating with partners and other stakeholders. As a result of the success of previous work, DO-IT staff look for opportunities to sponsor online and on-site activities to help students transition from high school to college, community college to four-year school, undergraduate to graduate school, and college/graduate school to career. They offer both activities that are short and motivational in nature and workshops that are longer and have significant academic content. In these activities students with disabilities learn about college and career opportunities; role-play on working with faculty and employers; practice self-advocacy skills; explore options for internships during college studies and jobs and graduate programs after college; meet professionals, including those with disabilities, in fields of interest; interact with peers and mentors; and participate in e-mentoring communities. Project staff also offer research and industry internships to secondary and postsecondary students with disabilities and work with each supervisor, career center staff (when appropriate), and student to identify appropriate accommodations. This interaction is designed to both improve the participant's opportunity for success and strengthen institutional and employer capacity to work successfully with individuals with disabilities. Project staff members also recruit employers and faculty to offer job shadows, field trips, internships, research experiences, and other work-based activities.

Suggestions from Practitioners. Participants in Capacity Building Institutes (CBIs) and online communities of practice hosted by DO-IT, as well as other professional forums, represent a wide variety of stakeholder groups (e.g., educators, academic administrators, technology developers, employers). Many of their perspectives and recommendations, often reported in CBI proceedings, have been considered when selecting DO-IT activities.

Input from Students with Disabilities. Many DO-IT project ideas are developed by or reviewed by students with disabilities. For example, an "A Team" of paid interns with disabilities was established in the AccessSTEM project to develop, validate, and implement project activities at partner schools. More informal feedback is provided by members in DO-IT's e-mentoring communities and outreach programs.

Adaptation and Replication of DO-IT Practices

Individuals and organizations worldwide are encouraged to adapt and replicate DO-IT practices. Materials to support this work are freely available on the DO-IT website through the link entitled DO-IT Publications, Videos, and Training Materials or the Search DO-IT option. Site visitors can find answers to specific questions by searching the DO-IT Knowledge Base of questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices. As part of DO-IT's replication and adaptation efforts, other programs are given permission to translate publication text and video captions to other languages and to adapt wording to make it more culturally relevant to their audiences.

To get started, collaborators may undertake activities that support one or more of the four replication objectives described in the following paragraphs, along with key implementation resources published by DO-IT.

Objective One. Develop a support program for youth with disabilities that includes residential study on a college campus, in-person and online peer and mentor support, internships and other work-based learning, and access to computers and assistive technology.

Key resources for undertaking this objective include

Objective Two. Promote the development and use of technology for people with disabilities.

Resources for undertaking this objective can be found at the website Technology and Universal Design.

Objective Three. Encourage the practice of universal design of instruction, physical spaces, technology, and services.

Key resources for undertaking this objective include

Objective Four. Employ strategies to promote institutional change.

Key resources for undertaking this objective are those in a series of comprehensive training materials that each includes a synthesis of research, institutionalization guidelines, presentation tips, tailored presentations, overhead visuals, video presentations, and handouts:

Example: Replication of DO-IT Practices in Japan

Many DO-IT practices have been replicated in Japan. Hosted by the University of Tokyo (n.d.), DO-IT Japan conducts a Summer Study session each summer for teens with disabilities, provides mentoring, and otherwise supports students with disabilities as they pursue college and careers. DO-IT Japan encourages high tech companies to develop accessible technology and people with disabilities to use cell phones, computers, and other technology to achieve high levels of participation in education, employment, and community activities. Consult the DO-IT Japan website for further information in Japanese. South Korea, through the leadership of Seoul National University and Korea Nazarene University, also hosts a Summer Study and otherwise collaborates with the DO-IT Center.


AccessComputing. (n.d.). AccessComputing. Seattle: University of Washington.

AccessSTEM. (n.d.). AccessSTEM. Seattle: University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2003). The role of technology in preparing youth with disabilities for postsecondary education and employment. Journal of Special Education Technology, 18(4).

Burgstahler, S. (2008a). Universal design in higher education. In Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, S. Burgstahler and R. Cory (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 3-20.

Burgstahler, S. (2008b). Universal design of instruction: From principles to practice. In Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, S. Burgstahler and R. Cory (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 23-43.

DO-IT. (n.d.). Center for Universal Design in Education. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (n.d.). Evidence-based practices of DO-IT. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (1993-2011). DO-IT Snapshots. Seattle: University of Washington.

National Council on Disability. (2000). Federal policy barriers to assistive technology. Washington, DC: Author.

National Council on Disability and Social Security Administration. (2000). Transition and post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities: Closing the gaps to post-secondary education and employment. Washington, DC: Author.

National Organization on Disability. (1998). Harris Survey of Americans with disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Author.

National Science Foundation. (2011). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Arlington, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2001, November). Improving the availability of community-based services for people with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.

Stern, V., & Woods, M. (2001). Roadmaps and rampways. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Building the legacy: IDEA 2004. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). ADA home page. Washington, DC: Author.

University of Tokyo. (n.d.) DO-IT Japan. Tokyo: Author.

What Works Clearing House. (n.d.) What Works Clearinghouse. New Jersey: Author.

World Wide Web Consortium. (2008). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0.


This paper is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (grant # CNS-1042260, HRD-0833504, and HRD-0929006). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume their endorsement.

Return to Sheryl's home page
Sheryl Burgstahler