Coordination Hub Research Brief: Inclusivity and Accessibility for Individuals with Disabilities in STEM


Inclusivity and Accessibility for Individuals with Disabilities in STEM research briefContributed by Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler (DO-IT Center), Dr. Brianna Blaser (DO-IT Center), and Daniela Saucedo (Coordination Hub)

We are pleased to share the Inclusivity and Accessibility for Individuals with Disabilities in STEM research brief, the second research product from the NSF INCLUDES Coordination Hub team. We note that this summer commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which provides protections against discrimination of people with disabilities in several areas including employment, education, health care, recreation, transportation, and housing, and we continue to strive to provide the highest quality educational access for individuals with disabilities. 

The brief features 10 INCLUDES-funded projects which focus on people with disabilities, and provides educators, researchers, and practitioners with evidence-based strategies to ensure students with disabilities have full access to enriching learning experiences and STEM employment opportunities. It addresses Universal Design (UD), accessibility issues related to online learning, and the impact of COVID-19 on remote education for students with disabilities.

Here, we dive deeper into the topics addressed in the brief with INCLUDES National Network members Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, founder and director of the University of Washington’s DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center, and Dr. Brianna Blaser, DO-IT coordinator/counselor. Their guidance and feedback were instrumental to the creation of the brief. Read the Q&A with Drs. Burgstahler and Blaser below:

Q: Can you tell us more about the work that the DO-IT Center does to empower people with disabilities?

A: The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center is dedicated to empowering people with disabilities through technology, education, and preparation for employment. It promotes awareness and accessibility—in both the classroom and the workplace—to maximize the potential of individuals with disabilities and make STEM communities more vibrant, diverse, and inclusive.

DO-IT projects funded by the National Science Foundation include:

  • AccessINCLUDES, which links disability-focused projects to the INCLUDES Network
  • AccessComputing, which works to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing academic programs and careers
  • AccessCyberlearning, which advances knowledge to improve the experiences of learners with diverse characteristics, including disabilities, in digital learning opportunities

Q: What is Universal Design (UD)? What are key considerations for institutions to keep in mind when beginning to implement UD, including common barriers and solutions to overcome them?

Students looking at a computerA: Everyone who qualifies to take courses or to teach at an institution should be able to do so. An institution should make sure everyone feels welcome, can get to facilities and maneuver within them, is able to fully benefit from resources and courses, and can make use of equipment and software. UD is defined by the Center on Universal Design 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.”[1]

An institution should consider ways that they can apply UD to:
  • Planning, policies, and evaluation
  • Facility and environment
  • Student support services
  • Information resources including websites and publications
  • Courses and faculty
  • Computers, software, and assistive technology

    Key questions to ask include:

    • Are people with disabilities adequately represented in your staff, faculty, and student body? Are they included in departmental planning and review processes and advisory committees?
    • Do policies and procedures require that accessibility be considered when departmental websites are created or software is acquired?
    • Is there a clear process for requesting disability-related accommodations? Do staff members know how to respond to requests for sign language interpreters and other accommodation requests?
    • Do key publications include a statement about the institution’s commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations?
    • Do high profile and widely used videos have captions and audio descriptions? Do podcasts have transcripts?
    • Are faculty members familiar with and do they employ instructional strategies that maximize the learning of all students? (See Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction for a checklist of inclusive instructional strategies.)

      Learn more about UD of an academic unit in Equal Access: Universal Design of an Academic Department.

      Q: What are some of the common misconceptions around online learning for students with disabilities?

      A: When we have reached out to students with disabilities participating in our projects, we found that although some students struggle with the accessibility of online learning technology and teaching practices, some experience benefits in moving online. For example, some students with mobility-related disabilities appreciated that they no longer had to commute to campus and could work from a home that is accessible to them. For others, online learning does not play to their strengths with regard to time management, executive function, and more.

      At DO-IT, we encourage educators to consider principles that underpin UD, universal design of learning (UDL), and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to make their courses more welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities. There’s a misconception that UD is largely focused on students with disabilities; in fact, these strategies can benefit all students in a number of ways. Providing captioning for videos is a clear example of this. Not only do people who are deaf or hard of hearing use captions, but many students who are non-native English speakers benefit from them as do people watching videos in noisy environments. Likewise, it’s easy to see that clear communication that includes avoiding jargon, clear expectations, and scaffolding tools benefit all students in the classroom, not just individuals with disabilities.

      Q: Given the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, what can educators do now to prepare their online instruction to reduce barriers for students with disabilities?

      A: We encourage educators to pay particular attention to ensure that they:

      • Only insert content into the learning management system that is accessible. This includes consideration of things like formatting headings, including alt tags for images, using high contrast color schemes, and more.
      • Only use captioned videos. They should edit computer-generated captions on YouTube and turn on the automatic captioning tools with Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Slides.
      • Ask vendors if IT products they are purchasing are accessible to students with a wide range of disabilities.
      • Provide options for learning by presenting content in multiple ways.
      • Provide multiple options for students to demonstrate learning.
      • Provide feedback to students and offer corrective opportunities on assignments. 
      • Use multiple methods for assessing what students have learned.
      • Ask students for feedback about whether the course is accessible to them.

           Consult the resources listed below for more information about how to ensure online activities are accessible:

          Q: If you could give one piece of advice to INCLUDES Network members looking to recruit more students with disabilities or make their work more accessible, what would it be?

          Students looking at a computerA: It’s not unusual for us to hear from educators that they don’t have many people with disabilities in their courses or in their departments. It’s important to remember that a large number of people with disabilities have invisible disabilities and many choose not to disclose them to their institution or an instructor. You may not know if someone has a learning disability, an attention deficit, a chronic health condition, or is on the autism spectrum. So, if you want to reach out to students with disabilities you need to recruit more broadly than the disability services office at your institution. Sharing recruitment messaging to all students that includes a statement about your interest in recruiting students from all backgrounds, including students with disabilities, and a statement about how to request accommodations may help you attract these students.

          Of course, before you’ve recruited people with disabilities in your project, it’s important to make sure that your work is accessible through the broad application of UD principles. Once a student discloses a disability, communicate directly with them to determine whether they need accommodations and confirm that you’ll be able to offer those accommodations. Remember that a person with a disability is the best expert on what is needed in order for them to fully participate. Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Project to help identify what you are already doing to make your work accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities, as well as short and long term strategies that you can implement.


          You can access the full research brief here. Join the INCLUDES National Network at to connect with members and to access other resources that support efforts to expand participation in STEM learning and careers. If you have stories to tell about using any of these strategies, or if there are any other strategies for broadening participation in STEM that you would recommend, let us know in the comments below!