Equal Access: Making Computing Departments More Accessible to and Inclusive of Faculty with Disabilities

A framework and checklist for getting started

Application pools for faculty positions in computing fields have become increasingly diverse. However, the inaccessible design of employment application processes, as well as facilities, software tools, services, and online resources in many departments continue to erect barriers to some people with disabilities, including those who identify as members of other marginalized groups.

Many individuals with disabilities do not disclose their disabilities to current or potential employers. Some do not disclose because of concerns about discrimination and prejudice with respect to people with disabilities, often called “ableism.” Systematically reviewing and improving departmental communications, worksites, meetings, technology, events, and services to make them more accessible and inclusive has the potential to contribute to an inclusive department culture, and create a level playing field. This proactive approach, often called “universal design (UD),” addresses accessibility issues for the wide range of potential users when products, environments, or services are being created in order to make them more accessible and inclusive of everyone. Because accessibility is built in, applying a UD framework reduces the need for accommodations. Unfortunately many postsecondary campuses and departments create inaccessible policies, procedures, and practices and wait to address accessibility issues once an individual with a disability encounters a barrier or challenge and requests an accommodation. The next two sections of this document provide examples of UD practices and accommodations, respectively, that are relevant to faculty in higher education.

Examples of UD Practices

The following reported experiences illustrate both structural barriers that can make academic careers unwelcoming and inaccessible to some faculty with disabilities and solutions that can make an environment more welcome and accessible.

Potential Challenge Faced by Faculty Potential UD Solution
A faculty member who is blind encounters journal articles, review processes, and submission processes that are inaccessible to them using their screen reader. They face delays in securing accessible documents and require the help of sighted colleagues to prepare and review articles. Increasing awareness and encouraging scholarly organizations adopt accessible and inclusive processes and formats.
The productivity of a faculty member is reduced when their health-related disability flares up. Adopting a tenure and promotion process that takes into consideration disability-related issues, such as one that extends deadlines for earning tenure.
A faculty member who is quadriplegic requires accessible spaces. Funding the design of an accessible lab.
A faculty member with a disability is told their accommodations should be funded from their own grants or assigned budgets. Developing institutional policies that fund disability-related accommodations centrally. 
A faculty member finds that the burdens of disclosure, requesting accommodations, and being asked to ensure that departmental activities are accessible require too much time. Ensuring that departmental staff apply proactive accessible and inclusive designs (e.g., policy to design all websites and physical spaces to be accessible) can reduce this burden.
Examples of Accommodations

An accommodation is a customized adjustment for an individual with a disability when the established product or environment is not designed to be accessible to them. To request an accommodation, faculty members with disabilities work with the appropriate office on their campus, which is often housed within an Academic Human Resources office. Using an individualized process, a designated staff person who handles accommodation requests will meet with the faculty member, who might be required to submit documentation of their disability, to determine reasonable accommodations.

Types of accommodations faculty might receive are dependent upon the faculty member’s disabling condition(s) and how the condition might impact their required or expected work activities. Examples of accommodations for an individual include:

  • Sign language interpreters or live captioning.
  • Accessible equipment and furniture for classroom, lab, and office spaces.
  • Voice dictation software.
  • Screen reader software.
  • Altered teaching schedule.
  • Funding salary and travel expenses for a personal assistant or shipping a telepresence robot to use to attend a conference remotely for a faculty member who is quadriplegic.

The Job Accommodation Network’s Employer’s Guide to Reasonable Accommodation Under the Americans With Disabilities Act describes how a process should work, from the time a position is posted through the time someone receives employment accommodations.

Examples of Systemic Issues to Consider

AccessComputing, a project funded by the National Science Foundation, has drafted the following checklist of questions to highlight some promising practices departments can consider implementing proactively to be more accessible and inclusive of current and future faculty members with disabilities. Implementing these practices may also benefit other individuals, including non-native speakers of English, faculty who have not disclosed a disability, or faculty who have a newly acquired disability and may be learning about their own access needs.

​​Policies and Evaluation

Ensure that diversity issues, including disability, are addressed in all policies and evaluations regarding your offerings.

Accommodation-related policies

  • Are potential hires made aware of the methods for requesting accommodations during the application and interview process?
  • Do faculty offers include covering the cost of accommodations for applicants who request them?  Are the costs for any accommodations clearly differentiated from start up funding?
  • Does the department ensure that faculty, especially new hires, are aware of the campus workplace accommodation process? Is there a simple, transparent procedure to ensure a timely response to requests for accommodations?
  • Is it clear that all disabilities, not those that are just readily apparent, are considered in accommodations requests and in diversity related initiatives?
  • Are accommodations approved and funded efficiently through a central institutional unit and budget so departments avoid the appearance that individual faculty members with disabilities are a financial burden?
  • Are service units agile in their responses and do they consider requests that go beyond minimum compliance to consider funding for such things as teaching and research assistants, release time, summer months, and additional sabbatical credit for faculty with disabilities?
  • Is it made clear to faculty how they can request guidance in choosing assistive technology? Are central funds available for faculty members to procure and update assistive technology?

Other policies and evaluation

  • Are people with diverse characteristics, including disabilities, intentionally encouraged to engage in departmental planning and advisory committees?
  • Do policies and procedures require that accessibility be considered in design, development, and procurement processes (e.g., regarding facilities, IT, and services)?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in internal and external reviews of the department?
  • Are there flexible policies that allow individuals to attend meetings and work remotely? Are important meetings captioned, recorded, and shared for those who cannot attend or wish to watch them at a later time?

Department Culture

Consider disability issues as you plan and evaluate your facilities and offerings.

  • Do departmental diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives address issues relevant to faculty members with disabilities and include representation of faculty members with disabilities? 
  • Is the department represented in any campus-wide organization that supports faculty with disabilities by facilitating communication, networking, support, and advocacy?
  • Are disability-related issues included in faculty climate surveys?
  • Do departmental policies and procedures that support people with disabilities, whether move beyond minimum levels of compliance and accommodations for individuals to a focus more broadly on universal or inclusive design?
  • Does the department offer opportunities and strategies for faculty members to learn about and negotiate accommodations?

Physical Environments

Ensure physical access, comfort, and safety within an environment that is welcoming to visitors with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages. Some of these answers to these questions will require advocacy by the department to the central administration for corrective action.

  • Are all levels of departmental facilities connected via wheelchair-accessible routes of travel? Are accessible routes of travel easy to find? Do all commonly used exterior and restroom doors have sensors or buttons for automatic opening? Are they regularly inspected to ensure functionality? Are restrooms fitted with appropriate height-accessible lavatories and sensor-activated faucets?
  • Are communal spaces with sinks, counters and appliances accessible?
  • Are there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout labs, offices, classrooms, and other facilities? Is Braille signage used where appropriate?
  • Do elevators have auditory, visual, and tactile signals and controls accessible from a seated position? Are wheelchair-accessible restrooms with well-marked signs available? Is emergency evacuation equipment for people with mobility disabilities available? Are staff trained in its proper use?
  • Are adjustable-height tables, ergonomic chairs, and adequate/adjustable light available?
  • Is there adequate ventilation in meeting rooms, classrooms, and labs?
  • Are there policies and procedures to ensure that accessibility issues are addressed when facilities are constructed or remodeled and when furniture and equipment are procured?

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions.

Collaboration and Communication

Make sure faculty and staff are prepared to work with all faculty, including those with disabilities.

  • Are faculty and staff familiar with the availability of alternate document formats?
  • Are faculty and staff aware of issues related to communicating with individuals of different races, ethnicities, ages, and abilities? See the DO-IT’s Communication Hints Knowledge Base article.
  • Are staff responsible for designing and developing websites knowledgeable about accessible web design?

Information Resources and Technology

Ensure that publications and websites welcome a diverse group and that information is accessible to everyone. Make sure accessible technology is available to faculty with disabilities.

  • Do departmental web pages adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards adopted by your institution or your department? For information about designing accessible websites, consult W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
  • Do key publications and websites include a statement about commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, a department could include the following statement: “The [name] Department values diversity, equity, and inclusion and strives to be accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Please inform us of accessibility barriers you encounter and request accommodations that will make facilities courses, services, and information resources accessible to you.”
  • Do policies and procedures require that accessibility be considered in development and procurement processes (e.g., with respect to software procurement, website development)? (See, for example, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Is specific staff support for these efforts funded?

Checklist Updates and Additional Resources

This checklist was adapted with permission from the AccessADVANCE project publication “Equal Access: Making STEM Departments More Accessible to and Inclusive of Faculty with Disabilities” and other checklists within The Center for Universal Design in Education. To increase its usefulness, please send suggestions for updates to accesscomp@uw.edu.

Faculty with disabilities are encouraged to engage with AccessComputing (link).  They may want to become an AccessComputing mentor or partner (links). Faculty with disabilities may also be interested in:

For more information about applications of universal design, consult The Center for Universal Design in Education website or the book Creating Inclusive Learning Opportunities in Higher Education: A Universal Design Toolkit published by Harvard Education Press.

Getting Started

Although looking at a long list of suggestions may seem overwhelming, an important characteristic of UD strategies is that they can be implemented incrementally. For example, a department might begin by assigning an existing diversity committee or creating a new task force to explore ways of making the department more welcoming and accessible to faculty with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities can and should be assigned to the advisory group. Members of the advisory group could, as they go through the checklist provided in this publication, cross off items not applicable in their department, note as “done” those that have already been implemented, and label with a recommended deadline date for those they feel should be addressed by the department. Then, using the online version of this publication, they could order the items by date and add additional notes as appropriate. Presenting the timeline to the department decision-maker on diversity issues could be the next step. Once approval is secured, assign staff and, when needed, secure budget funds to move forward with creating a more accessible and welcoming department.