Sheryl Burgstahler

Promoting the Success of Students with Learning Disabilities through Accommodations and Transition Support, Technology Access, and Universal Design

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., Affiliate Professor and Director of DO-IT Center University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A.

For the Japan Academy of Learning Disabilities (JALD), 2012

Opportunities for people with disabilities in the United States to engage in education, community life, employment, and recreation have increased on a continual basis. Students with a wide variety of disabilities participate in increasingly integrated settings at all academic levels. Today, many people with disabilities and their advocates consider disability as a natural part of the human condition and, therefore, consider full and integrated access to education, employment, and other activities in society as a civil right. Universal design (UD) provides an approach for proactively creating a world that is welcoming and accessible to the greatest number of individuals possible regardless of their abilities, disabilities, age, or other characteristics.

In this article, I discuss how the success of students with learning disabilities (LDs) can be promoted through accommodations and transition support, technology access, and universal design. I share evidence-based practices and outcomes of the DO-IT Center, which I founded and continue to direct. I also delivered most of this content as a keynote address at the 2012 conference hosted by the Japan Academy of Learning Disabilities (JALD) in Sendai, Japan.

Academic Accommodation and Transition Issues for Students with Disabilities

In the United States there are key differences in laws that establish the obligations of precollege and postsecondary institutions to support students with disabilities. At the postsecondary level—under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its Amendments and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—students must meet the established entrance, course, and graduation requirements with or without reasonable accommodations. Students at the postsecondary level who wish to receive accommodations must request them in advance and provide documentation of their disability that is acceptable to the institution. In contrast, in the K-12 education system—under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its Amendments—every child in the United States is offered a free, appropriate education, in an integrated setting with their nondisabled peers in most cases.

Examples of specific practices at K-12 and postsecondary levels with respect to the identification and support of students with disabilities are provided in the table below.

Examples of U.S. Practices for Students with Disabilities
K-12 Postsecondary
School identifies students & conducts assessments Students self-identify & provide documentation
All students with disabilities receive services Otherwise qualified student receives reasonable accommodations
Students can receive specially designed instruction, modifications to curriculum, &/or accommodations Students receive standard curriculum with reasonable accommodations that do not change essential course requirements
School provides personal assistants School does not provide personal assistants
Parents involved Parents usually not involved

Some functional limitations of students with LDs that may require accommodations include:

  • auditory perception and processing,
  • visual perception and processing,
  • information processing speed,
  • abstract reasoning,
  • memory,
  • spoken and written language,
  • mathematical calculation, and
  • executive functioning (planning and time management). (DO-IT, 2012a)

Accommodations for students with learning disabilities may include, but are not limited to, extra time on tests, note takers, alternative assignments and test formats, materials in alternate (e.g., electronic) formats, and assistive technology (DO-IT, 2012a).

All students face challenges as they transition to the postsecondary environment. Students with disabilities face particular challenges as a result of:

  • diminished support systems after high school;
  • little access to successful role models;
  • inadequate self-advocacy skills;
  • lack of or ineffective accommodations;
  • low expectations on the part of people with whom they interact; and
  • lack of access to mainstream and assistive technology (AT).

Technology Access

Technology access has the potential to increase independence, productivity and participation in education, careers, family life, community involvement, and recreation for individuals with disabilities. Assistive technology has progressed dramatically in the last three decades. For example, I worked with a 6-year-old boy in 1980. A medical condition made it impossible for him to use his hands or legs. However, with a stick held in his mouth, he learned to operate an Apple II computer. He could not be totally independent in doing so, however, because he could not enter commands or characters that required that two keys or more be pressed at the same time. Having an engineer design and an engineering student build an external switch box to lock and unlock the shift, control, and repeat keys solved the problem. In contrast, today there are thousands of hardware and software products and many accessibility features built into mainstream computer technology that facilitate the use of computers by individuals with a wide range of disabilities.

In particular, technology can assist students with LDs that impact their abilities with respect to:

  • spoken language—listening, speaking.
  • written language—reading, writing, spelling.
  • arithmetic—calculation, concepts.
  • reasoning—organization, integration of ideas and thoughts.

Computer technology that is particularly helpful to students with various LDs includes:

  • reading, writing, and math skill development software;
  • scanning/optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech, reading systems, and e-books;
  • large print, highlighting, and color options;
  • word prediction and abbreviation expansion;
  • speech input;
  • spell/grammar checkers;
  • idea organizers; and
  • other writing and mathematics tools.

A good solution for some students with learning disabilities is flexible, multi-feature software. For example, Read and Write GOLD presents a toolbar with a collection of literacy support tools for reading, writing, studying, and research, including OCR, scanning, speech output, and voice recognition. It can be used in conjunction with standard word processing and other application software. Other technologies useful for some students with LDs include talking calculators as well as “smart pens” with OCR and speech output and those that record lectures linked to specific places in student-generated notes. Low-tech aids such as Post-It Notes, highlighter pens, and large-print documents on colored paper are beneficial to some students with LDs.

An important issue for technology developers and educators to address is that a student with an LD might also have another disability. Technology options should address the unique challenges faced by students with LDs who also have visual impairments, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, and/or other disabilities.

Today, many mainstream technology products include features that benefit individuals with LDs. For example, Macintosh and Windows operating systems allow options for variable colors and contrast, screen/text enlargement, speech output, and speech recognition. The best scenario for all information technology being developed is to build in as many accessibility features as is reasonable and to ensure that these products are also compatible with stand-alone assistive technology software and hardware products. As summarized by a student with disabilities related to mobility, speech, and learning, who is now successfully employed in a technology field: “…assistive and mainstream technology companies need to work together in order for people with disabilities to get better results with their products…[we also] need to continue to prepare future developers on accessibility issues.”

Technology is also available to support classroom teachers as they work with students who have LDs. These products include LD diagnostic tools, and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) development and management tools.

Transition Support for Students with Learning Disabilities: Examples from DO-IT

The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center was founded in 1992 as an outreach program hosted by the University of Washington (UW). It has been and continues to be supported with federal, state, corporate, and private funds. DO-IT Japan began operation in 2007 at the University of Tokyo. The goal of DO-IT programs is to increase the success of individuals with disabilities in postsecondary education and careers, using technology as an empowering tool. With students, DO-IT promotes self-determination; college transition, retention, and degree completion; effective use of technology; and employment in challenging careers. With institutions, DO-IT promotes universal design, effective accommodations, and accessible technology development and use. (DO-IT, n.d.b)

DO-IT practices are supported by a solid base of evidence collected from:

  • literature reviews,
  • outcomes of prior DO-IT projects,
  • suggestions from practitioners,
  • input from students with disabilities, and
  • ongoing formative evaluation. (DO-IT, n.d.d)

In the DO-IT Scholars program (Burgstahler, Jirikowic, & Lopez, 2007; DO-IT, 2004, 2011), students with wide range of disabilities begin as high school sophomores and continue participating through college and beyond. Scholars are provided with computers and AT, and engage in interventions designed to support them as they pursue academic and career goals. Some specific Scholar activities are described in the paragraphs below.

Technology Use. Technologies used by DO-IT Scholars (DO-IT, 2012c) with LDs include speech recognition, reading systems, writing/organizational tools, and speech output programs. DO-IT participants with LD report many benefits of using computer-based technology; these benefits include that technology gives them the ability to

  • type/speak homework assignments.
  • use speech output for reading, word processing, presentations, spreadsheets, research, banking, shopping, etc.
  • scan printed documents and let the computer read to them.
  • record (audio/video) lectures.
  • organize papers, schedules, and bills.

Many DO-IT participants continue to utilize empowering technologies as they prepare for and transition to the work force. For example:

  • One DO-IT Scholar with both dyslexia and dysgraphia began participation in 1998. She earned a bachelors degree in Informatics and is now a business analyst at a computer company. Technology that contributed to her success includes speech output, speech input, and grammar/spell checkers.
  • A 1994 Scholar with Cerebral Palsy—who uses grammar/spell checkers, a synthesized voice on a communication device, a touch screen and computer-based environmental controls and telephone access—now works full-time as a technology specialist at an assistive technology company.

Summer Study. During Summer Study programs on the University of Washington campus, DO-IT Scholars test and use technology, live in dorms with roommates, and engage in college and career preparation activities where they learn about resources, study skills, time management, test-taking. They become experts on AT and accommodations that benefit them and learn how to self-advocate. They engage in mock job interviews with potential employers; hear from successful college students with disabilities; and take field trips.

Throughout Summer Study and other DO-IT activities Scholars are encouraged to develop self-advocacy skills and lead self-determined lives. For example, in the Faculty Interaction Activity, students with disabilities meet in small groups with postsecondary faculty members. They pretend that they will be in one of the faculty members’ classes next term. All students have opportunities to practice introducing themselves to a faculty member, providing descriptions of their disabilities in functional terms, sharing some of their strategies for success (including technology use), and requesting academic accommodations. When they request accommodations they are taught to clearly articulate what each person will do to implement the accommodation (e.g., what roles the faculty member, student, and disability services office will play).

Mentoring. Year-round DO-IT Scholars can meet with DO-IT staff for individual consultation; participate in workshops, panels, and other learning/leadership opportunities; participate in tutoring; engage in internships; and get together for pizza and networking. Since DO-IT participants are scattered across the United States DO-IT has chosen to provide the majority of its mentoring electronically. This approach is referred to as “e-mentoring.” There are many advantages to e-mentoring but perhaps one of the most important advantages is that it allows everyone to effectively and efficiently share their expertise and advice. Positive aspects of DO-IT’s e-community approach include the following:

  • Individuals benefit from the experiences of a large group of mentors, peers, and near-peers.
  • Mentors can specialize in the areas of their strongest expertise.
  • The program performs successfully even though some mentors are less available and skilled than others.
  • Using asynchronous, text-based communication on the Internet eliminates barriers faced by other forms of communication that are imposed by location, schedule, and disability.
  • Program administrators view all group communications that take place, thus finding it easy to guide and contribute to conversations.
  • Mentors learn techniques from each other by attending to the communications that take place. (Burgstahler, 2006)

In e-mentoring messages participants and mentors discuss a wide variety of issues and share experiences. Examples are included in the list below.

  • Personal Stories: [My LD] “affects me mostly in reading and spelling. Also, my handwriting is awful, but computers have made that less of an issue.”
  • Encouragement: “We can use our disability to show others that we can do anything that others without disabilities can do. I am so glad to have met all of you guys! you’re amazing!”
  • College: “I have dyslexia which means my brain is wired a little differently. I am slow reader and have struggled with grammar. Going to college helped me learn how to advocate for myself. I used books on tape, had a note taker, and used text-to-speech software…”
  • Scholarships: “The Anne Ford Scholarship is for high school seniors with learning disabilities who plan to pursue a four-year undergraduate degree.”
  • Experiences, Tips: “I like a simple font like Times New Roman, Tahoma or Calibri. During tests I hate it when teachers use lower case “a,b,c,d” for multiple choice questions; it always messes me upÉ.the font does not bother me as much as the color of the paper. Simpler the better!”
  • Resources: “I’m a fan of…”
  • Internships: “I was a Microsoft Intern, where IÉ”
  • Employment: “This [article about people with dyslexia successfully running their own businesses] ran in today’s New York Times]. I would be interested to hear what people think of these findings.”
  • Relationships with Co-workers: “I do things just a little different than my peers. I’m happy, successful and proud to have coworkers who not only welcome, but celebrate my work style.”

Field Trips, Training, Internships, and Employment. Field trips are an important part of DO-IT, both during Summer Studies and year-round. Engaging in field trips allows students to get a first look at possible careers and real work environments. For example, when students with disabilities and their teachers toured a Boeing Company plant students learned about careers in engineering, manufacturing, and aerospace. When asked about their field trip to Boeing student responses included:

  • “I think it’s cool how they figured out how to fly more people using less fuel.”
  • “I learned that mechanical engineers can do tons of different types of jobs.”

Scholars also engage in resume-writing activities, job shadows, and internships. Participants also participate in training that may lead to employment opportunities. For example, after completing a Design of Accessible Websites course, some students continued as interns, testing and recommending improvements to selected websites; some returned as assistants; some pursued more training; and some secured employment in the web design field.

Engagement in Existing Programs. Some interventions recruit students with disabilities to engage in other programs that exist to expose students to the wide variety of options that exist in postsecondary settings. For example, students with disabilities and special education teachers participate in UW’s annual Math Day, which includes tours, lectures, and hands-on activities. One teacher shared, “The value of attending events on a college campus go beyond learning about math, it’s an opportunity for Seattle students to navigate the UW campus, often for the first time. A participating student with a disability reflected, “I think a university is much harder than high school and you are responsible for yourself.”

Support On Campus. Some DO-IT interventions support students after they have enrolled in college. For example, DO-IT received funding to support student learning communities and one-on-one academic coaching at the UW and two local community colleges. In these programs students gain skills in time management and studying. They also learn about technology access, campus services, and other resources available to help them be successful in college.

Long-term Engagement and Promotion of Access for People with Disabilities. The DO-IT program is designed to engage participants long-term. When DO-IT Scholars graduate high school and move on to college or other adult-life activities, they become DO-IT Ambassadors. DO-IT Ambassadors mentor younger Scholars, lead DO-IT activities, and help make programs and worksites more welcoming and accessible to people with all types of disabilities wherever they may be. This long-term involvement allows participants to gain leadership skills and give back to society.

Participants can earn honorariums and compete for prizes by conducting an Informal Science Accessibility Review of a local facility or program using a checklist that addresses issues with respect to a wide variety of disabilities. Suggestions from the reviews are shared with the facilities to guide them in making changes toward activities that are more accessible to everyone in the community, including people with disabilities.

Participants also promote the use of accessible science equipment by conducting demonstrations at educational conferences and meetings using a collection of accessible science equipment purchased by DO-IT. Each product is accompanied by a large-print and Braille tent sign with simple operating instructions on the back (DO-IT, 2012b).

DO-IT gives participants opportunities to share their perspectives in DO-IT publications and websites. For example, DO-IT’s publication on transitioning to graduate school (DO-IT, 2012d) includes tips from twelve participants and mentors in e-mentoring community.

Evidence of Success. A longitudinal tracking study provides evidence of DO-IT participant success (Burgstahler, Moore, & Crawford, 2011). According to the most recent data analysis DO-IT respondents (294 thus far) are achieving higher levels of success than other U.S. students with disabilities in high school and college graduation. Overall, 270 respondents had graduated from high school at the time of the most recent interview. Most (78%) enrolled in a DO-IT program prior to high school graduation. Of these, 89% have graduated from high school. Nineteen of the remaining 24 were last interviewed before their calculated graduation year and the remaining five had not yet graduated as of the fall after their calculated graduation year. Two of these were completing high school while attending community college through the Running Start program. Thus, the available data indicate a 100% high school completion rate among DO-IT participants.

Of the 270 high school graduates interviewed:

  • 95% (257) enrolled in college, with slightly more first attending four-year colleges than two-year colleges.
  • 36% (106) of respondents have graduated from 134 postsecondary programs. (Twenty-six individuals each completed two programs, perhaps a two-year and a four-year program; perhaps a four-year and a graduate program. One individual completed three programs.)
  • 56% (165) were still enrolled or enrolled in another college or graduate program.
  • 95 have earned 122 postsecondary certificates/degrees.

Study participants were asked to rate the value of program activities as they prepared for college and careers. As indicated in the figure below, all interventions were rated highly. Access to technology was reported to be the most valuable intervention, with 76% of the respondents noting that access to technology was very valuable and 20% reporting it to be valuable. Internship and other work-based learning experiences were rated as very valuable by 59% of those who participated and as valuable by another 30%. College transition workshops or on-site camps were rated nearly as high with 41% of the participants rating this type of activity very valuable, and another 44% rating it as valuable. Mentoring was also rated very positively, with 43% indicating that it was very valuable and another 36% saying it was valuable.

Participant Ratings of DO-IT Interventions

[Bar graph showing the perceived value of DO-IT interventions as rated by DO-IT respondents.]

Surveys of DO-IT student participants, parents, and mentors also suggest positive outcomes of specific activities and program overall (DO-IT, n.d.d). In an external evaluation of DO-IT activities conducted in 2009 by SRI International, the following components were identified as major contributors to successful transition and retention activities conducted by DO-IT:

  • belonging (both academic and social integration),
  • involvement (in academic and social life),
  • purpose (through internships, workshops, networking, mentoring, …), and
  • self-determination (skill building, practice).

Universal Design

An accommodation adjusts a product or environment to provide access to a specific person. But often the need for accommodations can be minimized or eliminated if the basic design of the product or environment applied principles of universal design. Universal design is “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 for Universal Design, n.d.)

UD can be applied to education in all areas including: instruction, student services, technology, and physical spaces (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008). For example, a universally-designed video would address multiple audiences in its design; film scenes with caption placement in mind; use large, clear and searchable captions; scripts and dialogue should be designed so that key content is spoken and visually presented; and make an audio-described version available.

UD in education:

  • is a goal as well as a proactive process,
  • can be implemented incrementally,
  • focuses on benefits to all students,
  • promotes good teaching practices,
  • does not lower academic standards, and
  • minimizes the need for accommodations.

Applying UD to learning promotes multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. UD practices that are particularly beneficial for students with LD include:

  • large, bold fonts on uncluttered overhead displays,
  • speaking aloud all visual content presented,
  • outlines & other scaffolding tools,
  • opportunities to practice procedures,
  • materials in accessible electronic formats,
  • regular feedback & corrective opportunities, and
  • activities that allow extra time. (Burgstahler, 2012)

Details regarding the application of universal design in educational settings can be found in The Center for Universal Design, which is hosted by the DO-IT Center (DO-IT, n.d.a).

Replication of DO-IT Practices

DO-IT engages with other countries to adapt 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 promotion of universal design of instruction, physical spaces, technology, and services. Individuals and organizations who wish to replicate DO-IT practices are encouraged to consult replication materials provided on the DO-IT website (DO-IT, n.d.c). For each of the following action items printed materials and videos referenced, most provided freely online.

  • 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.
  • Promote the development of and use of technology for people with disabilities.
  • Encourage the practice of universal design of instruction, physical spaces, technology, and services.
  • Employ strategies to promote institutional change.

To share what we and other researchers and practitioners have learned, DO-IT has created many publications and videos that can be freely accessed on the DO-IT website. Of particular value is an online, searchable Knowledge Base (DO-IT, n.d.e). This resource includes more than 600 articles and is continually growing and updated. Included are case studies, promising practices, and answers to common questions regarding the accessibility of technology, education, and careers for individuals with disabilities. Examples of article titles include:

  • Q&A: How can digital content help students with learning disabilities that affect their ability to process math?
  • Case Study: Colored Rulers: A Case Study on Finding a Low-Tech Solution for Completing Exams
  • Promising Practice: Accessibility Reviews: A Promising Practice to Improve the Accessibility of Science Education Program


The success of students with learning disabilities can be promoted through the provision of accommodations and transition support, the use of technology, and the application of the principles of universal design in educational settings. Ultimately, it is hoped that DO-IT’s interventions for students with disabilities and for institutions, will make education and career opportunities available to more citizens as well as benefit society with the talents and perspectives of people with disabilities.


Burgstahler, S. (2006). Creating and e-mentoring community. Seattle: University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2012). Equal access: Universal design of instruction. Seattle: University of Washington.

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

Burgstahler, S., Jirikowic, T., & Lopez, S. (2007). Creating a transition program for teens. Seattle: University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S., Moore, E., & Crawford, L. (2011). 2011 report of the AccessSTEM/AccessComputing/DO-IT longitudinal transition study (ALTS). Seattle: University of Washington.

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

DO-IT. (n.d.b). DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (n.d.c). DO-IT international connections. Seattle: University of Washington.

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

DO-IT. (n.d.e). DO-IT knowledge base. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (2004). How DO-IT does it (video). Seattle: University of Washington.

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

DO-IT. (2012a). Academic accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT (2012b). Accessible science equipment. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (2012c). Assistive technology used by DO-IT Scholars. Seattle: University of Washington.

DO-IT. (2012d). Moving on: Transitioning to graduate school. Seattle: University of Washington.

Center for Universal Design. (n.d.). Center for Universal Design. Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina State University.


This article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant #CNS1042260, 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.

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last modified: Monday December 17 16:15:18 PST 2012