Office of Disability Services and Universal Design

Like most universities, Georgia Tech complies with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Students with documented disabilities are primarily helped through the Office of Disability Services (ODS). Here is a critical excerpt from their mission statement:

Our purpose is to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to all programs and activities offered at Georgia Institute of Technology. Our goal is to foster the full and self-directed participation of persons with disabilities in post-secondary education, including students, faculty, staff, and visitors. Comprehensive support services and accommodations are available to encourage and enable them to take full advantage of Georgia Tech’s educational, social, and cultural opportunities. The Office of Disability Services provides support, resources, and accommodations to more than 500 students with chronic disabilities. Staff members serve as full time advocates for students with disabilities to ensure physical and programmatic access to make the Georgia Tech campus, and a Georgia Tech education, accessible and inclusive for all students. In addition to providing services to students, we also strive to be a resource for faculty and staff.

Accommodating Students with Disabilities

Consider these tips for accommodating students with disabilities:

If a student approaches you about a disability: Remember these legal and ethical guidelines:
1. Refer the student to ODS *Accommodations are guaranteed by federal law.
2. Do NOT ask the student for documentation verifying the disability. Faculty members may request verification by calling 404-894-2563. *Disability is defined by the ADA as a “mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
3. ODS will provide the student with an accommodation letter, detailing the accommodations needed. *Instructors should maintain confidentiality. Do not announce a student’s disability in class.
4. The student should schedule a meeting with you to discuss the necessary accommodations. *Students have an obligation to self-identify before accommodations can be given.
*Colleges are not required to give accommodations if they fundamentally alter the nature of an educational program.

What is Universal Design?

Rather than focusing on people with disabilities, universal design applies the principles of accessibility over a wide spectrum of environments, products, and technologies. The idea is not to single out disabled persons as “abnormal” or in need of “accommodation.” Rather, universal design takes into consideration the needs of all people and makes accessibility a universal concept.

Patricia Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers cite Nora Ellen Grace’s research on the deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard as an example of how Universal Design can affect communication:

Not everyone in Chilimark was deaf, but everyone knew deaf individuals either in their own family or in a neighbor’s family. Whether or not they had an immediate family member who could not hear, everyone spoke sign language. Therefore, the people who were dead were not ‘disabled’ in that society in the way they would be in ours. In fact, when surviving hearing community members were asked by the researcher if a particular deceased individual was disabled, they said no at first, and then remembered that the person had injured his hand permanently, so yes, he was disabled. But the elderly people Groce interviewed who were part of the Martha’s Vineyard community did not categorize the community members who were deaf as ‘disabled.’ They were considered part of what was considered normal in that community. And because everyone spoke sign language, these individuals’ could communicate equally well with everyone.[1]

Universal design can have a powerful effect upon the environment of your communication classroom. Students with disabilities tend to not identify themselves. Sometimes this tendency is due to embarrassment, a lack of education about their condition, or an anxiety about being thought of as abnormal. Universal design classrooms focus on inclusion rather than an abstract definition of normality and accommodation. This focus has the effect of making more able-bodied and disabled students participate in classroom discussion and activities.

Consider these principles of universal design in education:

  1. Multiple Means of Presentation. Give your students multiple ways to access course content. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have very different abilities when it comes to comprehending material. Some may have learning disabilities, others may simply learn better visually or orally.
    1. Publish your lectures online in PowerPoint, or an equivalent visual format.
    2. Provide online alternatives for written assignments, where people with visual impairments can change the size of text.
    3. Supplement written instructions with images, audio files, or graphs.
    4. Understand the differences in background information each student will have.
  2. Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Allow your students to demonstrate knowledge in different media. Our multimodal curriculum already emphasizes this versatility, but you may want to provide multiple options within single assignments.
    1. Visually impaired students might have a hard time completing a written paper, but may do very well with a podcast.
    2. Students with motor impairments (like cerebral palsy) might have difficulty with using the mouse on an in-class quiz, but may easily complete the quiz orally.
    3. For students with ADHD, a learning disability that usually involves problems with organizing information, suggest online organizers like GradeMate —
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement. Provide multiple media for discussion and participation. Give students opportunities for interpersonal communication, and foster a sense of community in the classroom.
    1. For classroom discussion, provide options for simultaneous online participation such as Tweeting or video conferencing.
    2. Allow students to design their own methods for achieving course outcomes.
    3. Contextualize course content in multiple ways, taking into consideration student backgrounds.
    4. Consider creating mentor/mentee relationships between students in class.

For more information, see the website for the National Center on Universal Design for Learning: Consider also this .pdf file containing a bibliography of resources on Universal Design and Learning:…/universal_design_bibliograpy__dolmage_.doc


  1. Patricia Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers. “Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space.” Kairos 7.1 (Spring 2002):