Many of us are working in more face-to-face or hybrid environments this fall and that is presenting unique challenges when considering accessibility.

Accessibility broadly defined includes all the things that allow a person to function in a particular context or environment. It is the degree to which someone can participate in the event or activity. Often an afterthought, approaching planning and design with a lens for accessibility is key to being proactive in supporting a wide range of working and learning needs.

There are big and small ways we can ensure every class, meeting and event are as accessible as possible. One framework to start from is Universal Design.

Most of the time things are designed so that “most” people can use them, but that creates different categories of people who need accommodations in order to be able to work or learn in the same environment as “most”.

Many organizations are familiar with the language of accommodation as a compliance requirement when an employee or student can present official documentation of a need from a medical provider or other professional. These are reactive and primarily benefits for those who have access to the time, information and money it takes to receive a formal diagnosis.

Accessibility is typically not considered until a specific request is made. While the Americans with Disabilities Act provides minimum legal requirements for most businesses and educational entities, this should be considered the floor and not the ceiling of what is needed to construct a culture of accessibility. Everyone benefits from the changes that are made to increase accessibility.

Many accessibility and Universal Design advocates point to the “curb-cut effect” as a primary example. This is named after the ramps that have been put into sidewalks in high-traffic areas, originally designed for use for people in wheelchairs.

However, we have come to expect them as commonplace in how we navigate streets on foot, on bicycles or with strollers. Many folks without documented hearing impairments have found Closed Captioning to be helpful when dialogue is unclear, in a noisy environment, or when learning a new language.

While it is easy to let accessibility be the first element to ignore when time, budgets and other resources are low, it is essential to an inclusive culture. Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility, and we need to hold ourselves and our organizations accountable for making it a priority. Additionally, as we navigate wearing masks during in-person communication and add virtual/hybrid options to our everyday activity we should be proactive in our considerations of accessibility.

Here are a few quick tips:

  • Don’t rely on official documentations of diagnoses to begin making changes – incorporate Universal Design from the beginning of planning.
  • Whenever a microphone is available, use it; whether or not you think you can project loud enough. This is always helpful, but now in particular, as masks can muffle voices and restrict people from being able to read lips and facial expressions. Physical distancing can also impact an audience’s ability to hear and understand a speaker.
  • Check in with students, employees and attendees about how they are experiencing the environment. Consider providing an anonymous survey or poll to get some information about what would increase accessibility and improve user experience.
  • Auto-captioning within Zoom or Microsoft 365 presentations is helpful and increases inclusion but does not meet accommodation compliance requirements. Official transcripts that are constructed to be closed captions or live captioners are always best.
  • Remember that many documents are not formatted for text readers. Double check your PDFs using an Accessibility Checker when you can.


Here are some additional resources to bring more accessibility into your working and learning environments:




This article was written by Jennifer Sandoval, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Director of Inclusive Culture. She can be contacted at Edited by Iulia Popescu.

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