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Legal Module

Physical and Cognitive Access

Some students with disabilities face barriers in relation to their ability to physically access education. For example, if a student cannot access a classroom, lab, or a library, that student is restricted in the ability to fully participate in the educational environment.  The ADA clearly notes that in regard to physical access for students with disabilities:

Physical barriers in existing facilities must be removed if removal is readily achievable (i.e., easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense). If not, alternative methods of providing the services must be offered, if those methods are readily achievable (U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

However, for most students with disabilities in postsecondary education, physical access does not present barriers. Most students are identified with “hidden” or less visible disabilities. These include learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or emotional disabilities. These students can face barriers to their cognitive access to course information. This includes how they can receive such information (e.g., reading texts or online materials, listening in class, focusing attention and concentration), process the information (e.g., encoding information into memory, retrieving facts from memory), and express understanding and knowledge (e.g., through test taking, in writing).

It is important to note that accessibility in online and blended learning has focused almost exclusively on the needs of students with physical and sensory disabilities. Although this is certainly important, the access needs of students with cognitive disabilities have been almost completely overlooked (Bohman & Anderson, 2005).

Traditionally, barriers to access have been eliminated through the use of academic adjustments (often referred to as reasonable accommodations) and auxiliary aids. The regulations of Section 504 specifically comment on accommodations on exams, noting: 

In its course examinations or other procedures for evaluating students' academic achievement, a recipient to which this subpart applies shall provide such methods for evaluating the achievement of students who have a handicap that impairs sensory, manual, or speaking skills as will best ensure that the results of the evaluation represents the student's achievement in the course, rather than reflecting the student's impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills (except where such skills are the factors that the test purports to measure) (§104.44 (c)).

The concept of universal design (UD) offers a new way of enhancing access to course information for a range of diverse learners including those with disabilities.  UD promotes planning to meet the needs of as many people as possible during the design stage. By so doing, the need for retroactive accommodations or modifications can be minimized. Importantly, people without disabilities, including second-language learners, returning students, and students with a range of learning styles also benefit from enhanced access to the curriculum when universal design principles are applied as a course is being developed (Bissonnette, n.d.; Burgstahler, 2002).


Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of of 2008, PL 110-325 42 U.S.C. §§ 1201 et seq.

Bissonnette, L. Meeting the evolving education needs of faculty in providing access for university students with disabilities. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://www.profetic.org/spip.php?article8126

Bohman. P., & Anderson, S. (2005). A conceptual framework for accessibility tools to benefit users with cognitive disabilities. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 88, 85-89. doi: 10.1145/1061811.1061828

Burgstahler, S. (2002). Distance learning: Universal design, universal access. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Journal, 10 (1), pp. 32-61.  Retrieved November 16, 2009, from http://www.aace.org/pubs/

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended, Section 504, P. L. 93-112, 29 U.S.C. §794 (1998).

Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Legal Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/legal-module