Burgstahler, S. (2010). Universal design in postsecondary institutions: Promoting systemic change. Design for All, 5(2), 75-95.

Universal Design in Postsecondary Institutions: Promoting Systemic Change
By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A.

The author of this article shares the activities and results of a four-year project designed to promote systemic changes toward more inclusive practices at postsecondary institutions in the United States. The project employed multiple interventions to promote applications of universal design (UD) nationwide. The author tells how evidence-based practices are now being applied in a new project and how other campuses can learn from these experiences as they incorporate UD into educational practices.

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) programs at the University of Washington in Seattle have, since 1992, worked to increase the success of individuals with disabilities in postsecondary education and employment. The ultimate goal of its AccessCollege project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education from 2005 to 2009, was to ensure that students with disabilities receive the same opportunities for college and career success as those of students without disabilities. One AccessCollege objective was to create measurable, systemic changes in policies, procedures, and practices at postsecondary institutions that promote the project goal. This article summarizes the need for change on postsecondary campuses, describes the composition of the AccessCollege Team, shares Systemic Change Indicators, tells about systemic change efforts conducted in the project, reports evidence of impact, and shares how evidence-based practices of AccessCollege are being applied in a new project.

The Need for Change

The number of students with disabilities entering higher education is growing due in part to their increased participation in precollege inclusive education. However, when compared to their nondisabled peers, individuals with disabilities experience less success in college and careers, including studies and employment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004; National Council on Disability and Social Security Administration, 2000; National Science Foundation, 2009).

Many fields can now be made accessible to more people due to the combined effect of (1) the increasing use of computers and scientific equipment in engineering fields and (2) advancements in assistive technology (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2002). For example, an engineer who is blind can access computer applications and databases with the assistance of speech and Braille output technologies. A student with dyslexia can more effectively read course materials when they are available in a format that can be presented by a computer in a synthesized voice. Success stories of people with disabilities demonstrate that opportunities exist for those who overcome existing barriers imposed by inaccessible facilities, curricula, computers, and scientific equipment, and lack of encouragement and role models (DO-IT, 1993-2009; Stern & Woods, 2001).

Postsecondary institutions in the U.S. typically provide reasonable accommodations once a student discloses a disability and provides appropriate documentation to the office that supports students with disabilities. However, it is estimated that only one-fourth of postsecondary students who actually have disabilities disclose their disabilities to the institution (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). Therefore, instructional approaches are ideal when they benefit students with a wide variety of characteristics, including disclosed and undisclosed disabilities. Universally designed instruction (UDI) proactively considers the diversity of students (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, ability, disability, learning style) and applies strategies that benefit all students (e.g., multiple modes of delivery and assessment). It reduces, but does not eliminate, the need for accommodations for specific students. UD can also be applied to technology and physical spaces to make them more usable by everyone (Burgstahler, 2008a). With UD, products (e.g., websites, curricula) and environments (e.g., labs) are designed for students with a wide range of characteristics, including disabilities, instead of simply for the average student. Although relatively few educators have begun to apply UD within postsecondary environments, there is increasing interest in this approach. More work is needed to routinely integrate UD in college and university settings.

The AccessCollege project took on the challenge of creating systemic changes in policies and practices to incorporate UD at postsecondary institutions nationwide. The paragraphs below share the composition of the AccessCollege Team, the Systemic Change Indicators, systemic change efforts conducted in the project, evidence of impact, and how evidence-based practices of AccessCollege are being applied in the current DO-IT project, AccessSTEM.

The AccessCollege Team

The collaborative Team of faculty and administrators represented a diverse set of two- and four-year postsecondary institutions from 20 states in the United States. To broaden project impact and maximize diversity, throughout the four years of the project, Team member schools each worked with an institutional partner in their state. If a Team member was from a four-year institution, the partner school was a community or technical college; if the Team member was from a community or technical college, the partner school was a four-year school. To further ensure diversity, each partner school had demographics (e.g., racial diversity, size, location) that were different from those of the Team institution. At the Team member and partner campuses, professional development programs were delivered, materials were disseminated, strategies for institutionalizing change were explored and implemented, and vehicles for ongoing collaborations were established. Together, project Team members developed Systemic Change Indicators to promote institutional change toward more accessible courses and services and provided input on the development of resources that include the book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice which was published by Harvard Education Press; comprehensive professional development materials, Building Capacity for a Welcoming and Accessible Institution; the popular online Center for Universal Design in Education; a comprehensive collection of concise publications on UD in postsecondary education; and two training videos.

Systemic Change Indicators and Results

Throughout the project, AccessCollege Team members implemented a wide range of strategies resulting in systemic change on their campuses. They developed high-level Systemic Change Indicators to guide them in their work on Team and partner campuses. These indicators are starting points for conversation about how to create an inclusive campus to ensure that all people experience the campus fully and equally through the same venues. They reflect high values with respect to diversity of all types, including those defined by abilities and disabilities. The eleven Indicators are listed below under three subheadings (AccessCollege, 2007).

University conversations:

  1. The university level mission statement is inclusive of people with disabilities.
  2. Disability is included in discussions of diversity and special populations on campus.

Administrative empowerment:

  1. Policies, procedures, and practices are regularly reviewed for barrier removal and inclusivity.
  2. Administrators, staff, faculty, and student leaders are trained and empowered to take action around disability and Universal Design issues.
  3. People with disabilities are visible (even if their disabilities are not) on campus including in positions of power or authority (administrative, faculty, student leaders, etc.)

Infusion in all aspects of campus:

  1. Budgeting reflects the reality of the cost of accommodating current and prospective employees, students and visitors with disabilities and does not serve to inadvertently discriminate in hiring or admissions.
  2. Measures of student success (retention, course completion, graduation, etc.) are the same for all student populations - institutional research includes this data.
  3. Campus marketing, publications, and public relations are accessible and include disability.
  4. Campus websites, including web-based courses, meet established accessibility standards.
  5. Disability is a component of the curriculum.
  6. All campus facilities are physically accessible.

These Indicators guided the work of AccessCollege Team members. Listed below are examples of specific systemic changes that were implemented in at least one Team or partner school during the project:

Systemic change has also occurred on state and national levels. For example, the governing body for all the two-year colleges along with the professional organization of disability services personnel in one state formed a procurement committee to assist in the process of considering UD issues before purchasing equipment for its colleges. And, AccessCollege Team members worked with a professional organization for college administrators to ensure that conference activities are accessible to attendees with disabilities and that adaptive equipment is set up for attendees with disabilities to access computers. In addition, a consortia of online learning units at post-secondary institutions has taken steps to promote UD principles in their programs.

Communities of Practice

One successful intervention employed in the AccessCollege project was the development and support of communities of practice (CoPs). The CoP paradigm has origins in business, where CoP members are practitioners who help each other improve practices (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Wenger, 2006; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). CoPs are groups of people who share a common concern in their practice and interact regularly to advance their field, develop innovative and efficient work strategies, and improve their outcomes.

An electronic discussion list facilitated communication between AccessCollege Team members and staff throughout the project period and continues to operate as a CoP. Members develop and share evidence-based and promising practices for making postsecondary campuses more welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities. Many discussions specifically focus on implementation of UDI strategies, information technology (IT), student services, and physical spaces.

In addition, AccessCollege Team schools fostered campus-wide CoPs. The focus of each AccessCollege CoP was on systemic change toward a campus that is welcoming and accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. CoP members identified accessibility problems, set goals, assessed measurable changes, monitored activities, adjusted plans, and developed resources. Twenty-three CoPs were active during AccessCollege funding period and most continue operation, thus extending the impact of AccessCollege many years beyond the funding period. Some were general in nature, others focused on specific issues, such as accessible technology. Their diversity is represented in a few of their statements of purpose included below.

Professional Development

The AccessCollege Team delivered almost two hundred professional development presentations and workshops to more than 7,000 faculty, student services personnel, students, and community stakeholders on campuses and at professional conferences nationwide. Presentations varied in length from one-half hour to several hours; most covered legal issues, accessibility considerations and universal design, accommodation strategies, and campus resources. Out of the evaluations that were returned following these presentations, 84% of respondents indicated they were better able to assist students with disabilities by making services and courses more accessible; they reported gaining knowledge about referring students with disabilities to specific accommodations (92%); technology available to support students with disabilities (80%); applying UD principles and strategies (80%); and legal obligations relating to students with disabilities (77%). In presentation surveys 98% of faculty reported that they plan to change at least one thing about their teaching from the ideas they learned in the training. These changes include:

The following representative sample of comments from participants in presentations also suggest positive outcomes:

Presenters also reported feedback that suggests that training resulted in positive changes at postsecondary institutions with long-term impact. A few comments are shared below.

In summary, the project data collected from participants and trainers suggests that training increased awareness in making postsecondary education accessible to students with disabilities and suggests a positive impact on the behavior of student service personnel, faculty, and administrators.

Research conducted by AccessCollege also revealed a positive impact of UD practices on student achievement, in terms of course grades. In a quasi-experimental research design, AccessCollege Team members collected grade data for students in classes taught by faculty who received training and for students in classes taught by "matched" faculty who did not. The grades of students with and without disabilities in those two categories were compared before and after the training period. In summary, (1) overall, the average course grades of the students with disabilities before the faculty training period were significantly lower than those of their non disabled classmates, (2) in the post-training period the grades of students with disabilities and without disabilities in courses where faculty members received training were closer to the same level, but this pattern was not observed in the grades of untrained faculty. This result suggests that faculty training can have a significant impact on the ability of the instructors to effectively teach students with disabilities (DO-IT, 2009).

Capacity Building Institutes

Offering Capacity Building Institutes (CBIs) was another intervention to promote systemic change employed in the AccessCollege project. Twenty-two CBIs were held at Team and partner schools. In contrast to the more traditional professional development described above, the CBIs engaged multiple stakeholders (e.g., administrators, faculty, teaching assistants, support staff for faculty and students, students with disabilities, student veterans) and focused on institution-wide change (DO-IT, 2007). CBI participants learned to make courses, campus services, physical spaces, and information resources more welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities. They identified access challenges on their campuses and made plans to implement and institutionalize policies, practices, and procedures that lead to universally-designed institutions. Some CBIs focused on creating systemic change toward a more inclusive campus in general; others focused on specific topics than included UDI, accessible IT, serving veterans, web accessibility; design of an inclusive classroom, and listening to student perspectives. CBIs resulted in specific changes on Team and partner school campuses. For example, a direct outcome of one CBI was that the library hired a student with a disability as part of their full-time staff. Direct results of several other CBIs were improvements in the accessibility of campus websites.

Applications in a New Project

The Northwest Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM (AccessSTEM, n.d.) is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to increase the number of students with disabilities successfully completing STEM degrees and entering the STEM workforce. It began in 2008 as one of four such alliances supported by NSF in the U.S. Through mentoring, industry and research internships, transition workshops, networking opportunities, and other activities, AccessSTEM works directly with high school and college students with disabilities to support their pursuit of studies and careers in STEM (Burgstahler & Chang, 2008; Burgstahler, Lopez, & Jirikowic, 2007; Burgstahler, Moore, & Crawford, 2009). In addition, it promotes systemic change within its partner precollege, college, and university partner institutions by employing evidence-based practices, some developed in AccessCollege. Project staff conducted a CBI that included stakeholders from all institutions partnering in the effort to identify challenges and opportunities for promoting STEM with students with disabilities in the region. Partners are also actively engaging in an online CoP as well as periodic phone conferences. Faculty training uses materials developed in earlier projects and applies teaching strategies and delivers content found to be effective in changing faculty behavior and increasing the success of students with disabilities.


AccessCollege made a unique contribution in this field by building on current research and evaluative data; developing methods and materials through a nationwide collaboration of geographically and demographically diverse set of colleges and universities; hosting CBIs that focus on systemic change; and collecting data to document effectiveness. Data collected in AccessCollege suggests that project activities (1) resulted in systemic change toward more inclusive college and university environments, (2) changed teaching practices of faculty to make postsecondary learning environments more welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities and (3) increased the success of students with disabilities in college courses nationwide. Its focus on systemic change, development of innovative online resources, and development of ongoing communities of practice ensure long-term impact. Other campuses can learn from their experiences, keeping in mind that to create measurable change toward UD ongoing staff training, encouragement, and systematic monitoring is required; implementation of UD can occur in incremental steps; and a growing number of resources are available to support UD efforts.

DO-IT Resources

The following resources are most relevant to the content of this article and provide further opportunities for learning and applying UD in postsecondary educational settings.

Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (Eds.). (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

AccessCollege: Postsecondary Education and Students with Disabilities


The Center for Universal Design in Education

DO-IT Searchable Knowledge Base (of questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices)


This publication is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Education (grant #P333A050064) and the National Science Foundation (grant # HRD-0833504). Any questions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Government.


AccessCollege. (2007). AccessCollege: Systemic change for postsecondary institutions. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/access_college.html

AccessSTEM. (n.d.). AccessSTEM. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/Stem/

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2002). New career paths for students with disabilities: Opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://ehrweb.aaas.org/entrypoint/paths/index.html

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), 40-57.

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

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

Burgstahler, S., & Chang, C. (2008). Promising interventions for promoting STEM fields to students who have disabilities. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 5(2), 29-47.

Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (Eds.). (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

Burgstahler, S., Lopez, S., & Jirikowic, T. (2007). Creating a transition program for teens with disabilities: How DO-IT does it and how you can do it, too. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/Transition/

Burgstahler, S., Moore, E., & Crawford, L. (2009). Report of AccessSTEM/AccessComputing/DO-IT Longitudinal Transition Study. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/Stem/tracking2.html

DO-IT. (n.d.). DO-IT. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/

DO-IT. (1993-2009). DO-IT Snapshots. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/Snapshots/

DO-IT. (2007). Building capacity for a welcoming and accessible postsecondary institution. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.uw.edu/doit/cbiN/

DO-IT. (2009). AccessCollege final report. Submitted to U.S. Department of Education. Seattle: University of Washington.

National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast facts: What proportion of students enrolled in postsecondary education have a disability? [Data source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Profile of undergraduates in U.S. postsecondary education institutions: 2003-04 (NCES 2006-184)]. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60

National Center for Education Statistics. (2004). Table D-9. Field distribution of graduate student enrollment, by disability status: 2004. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/pdf/tabd-9.pdf

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 Science Foundation. (2009). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Arlington, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/

Stern, V. & Woods, M. (2001). Roadmaps and Rampways. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from http://ehrweb.aaas.org/rr/index.html

Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from http://www.ewenger.com/theory/

Wenger, E. & Snyder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, January-February, 139-145.

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