Does access translate to accessibility?

Published April 25, 2023
Updated May 26, 2023

As someone who went through most of their academic career with undiagnosed ADHD, I have been thinking a lot about how to make higher education more accessible, attainable, and engaging on a meaningful level for learners whose attention is more divided than a neurotypical student. There are tools out there that helped me learn the content for school without accommodations, but accommodations, advocacy, access and accessibility should all be employed by schools to help all students succeed.

“Neurodiversity refers to the presence of many different types of minds throughout the human race, all of which have valuable characteristics. The term aims to categorize autism, ADHD, and other developmental conditions as naturally occurring traits in the human population rather than pathologies to be “cured.” (Disabilities, Neurodiversity, and Chronic Illness

“The concept of neurodiversity is linked to the social model of disability, where an individual’s limitations are based on the environment and social constructions and not on the person’s physical abilities.” (Design for Neurodiverse Learners | ATD)

From Access to Accessibility

Accessibility and open access are often used interchangeably in discussions about Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, but I want to highlight some of the discrepancies between the two. A very basic understanding of the word ‘accessibility’ is the ability to access. Open access, open education, and open data are expanding who can access materials that have been traditionally gatekept by elitist publishers and institutions. So having materials that are openly licensed, free and discoverable solves that, right? 

Well, not really. While openly licensed materials are a critical first step to begin to break down barriers to access, such as cost and copyright restrictions, many more obstacles to accessibility still need to be addressed. Because abilities, physical and cognitive, differ greatly from individual to individual, we should be mindful of different barriers to access when designing, collecting and curating educational materials.

Barriers to access are conditions or obstacles that prevent individuals with disabilities from using or accessing knowledge and resources as effectively as individuals without disabilities. Common types of barriers include:

  • Physical: Conditions in any structural environment that prevent or impede an individual with a disability from efficiently navigating the setting.

  • Media format: Information that is not available in a readable format for individuals with disabilities.

  • Technology: Software, electronic, or physical technologies that are not adaptable for use with assistive devices.

  • Systemic: Procedures, protocols, or policies that place undue burdens on individuals with disabilities.

  • Perception: False expectations that individuals with disabilities are unable to contribute as much as their peers who have no disabilities.

Universities often have accommodations for these barriers, including quiet testing facilities, accessible media formats upon request, and access to ASL interpreters. Many universities and libraries are recognizing the varying abilities of students and faculty and are improving their spaces and language to accommodate and include their diverse student body. The design world is also moving towards a more inclusive approach with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) recommendations and standards. Following these standards make websites and databases more accessible, but designers equally need to focus on usability, meaning that the site is capable of being used. If a site can be accessed, the user should be able to use the site for its intended purpose and interact with the interface in a meaningful way.

Universal Design and Best Practices

It can be exhausting and demeaning for anyone with a disability to constantly need to advocate for themselves. People who are in a position to advocate for people with disabilities should listen to the disability community and include voices from the community in their advocacy and research. There is a lack of awareness and support for invisible disabilities and neurodivergent folks. In order to make resources truly accessible, we need to be aware and mindful of all potential users and their abilities and design resources and platforms to be used by anyone without them having to request accommodations. I have noticed and appreciated Canvas incorporating assistive technology options for all users regardless of disability status with Anthology Ally by providing multiple alternative media format options for any pdf posted to a course. 

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 details best practices and requirements for accessible web design. As our use of digital technologies and media expands and we rely on devices and online spaces more as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to prioritize inclusion, access, accessibility, and user experience. Libraries have a responsibility to make sure databases and other online resources conform with WCAG so that all students can access and use them. This is part of a librarian’s job that requires significant advocacy and negotiation with content vendors. ASU Library Licensing and Copyright Librarian Karen Grondin shares more insight into her role in advocating for access and accessibility:

“Librarians work to ensure that vendors submit a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) or Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR), verifying that those VPATs / ACRs are accurate, identifying potential barriers, and communicating those barriers to vendors. Additionally, libraries should include language in license agreements requiring vendors to ensure that platforms and content are WCAG-compliant. Finally, since it isn’t always possible for a product to be fully accessible, libraries must be prepared to provide timely support to end users.”


Instructors, especially those who teach online or expect students to engage in online spaces, are responsible for ensuring their content is easy to access. This ASU Teach Online article by London Skiles has great strategies for designing course instruction with neurodiversity in mind. Click the image for a pdf with five helpful strategies for designing for neurodiversity.

Access at ASU 

"Quality higher education should be available to any student capable of performing university-level work, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic constraints. This objective is central to the ASU charter and organizational design. The university is dedicated to providing all learners with accessible and valuable pathways to knowledge and preparing universal learners capable of lifelong adaptation."
- Access | Office of the President

I have loved interning at ASU because of its emphasis on widespread access to materials for its community and its efforts to provide affordable and flexible education for students. If you know me, you know I basically strive to be Hank Green when I grow up, so I was very excited to hear about Study Hall partnering with ASU. In high school and college, YouTube was a supplementary material for my education. I couldn’t manage all the readings for my classes, but I wanted to be able to come prepared for class discussions and assignments, so I looked up CrashCourse and the Ling Space videos that helped me connect with the topics of my courses and assigned readings. I love what EdPlus and Study Hall are offering; they are creating content and learning pathways that are free to access and widely accessible to people with diverse needs. 

Because awareness is the first step towards inclusion and accessible practices, I encourage you to explore some of the resources I have mentioned and seek out research and services that either are created or endorsed by disabled and neurodivergent folks.

Here are 10 resources I have found to be helpful in considering accessibility and design with neurodiversity in mind:   

  1. About Us - Understanding is everything | Anthology 
  2. Access Zone training raises awareness of students with 'invisible' disabilities | ASU News
  3. Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
  4. Autism goes to College: Understanding the Needs of a Student Population on the Rise
  5. Designing for users on the autistic spectrum 
  6. Doing Accessible Social Research: A practical Guide  
  7. Jenara Nerenberg & The Neurodiversity Project
  8. National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD)
  9. Teach Access 
  10. What Do We Really Know about ADHD in College Students? - PMC
Abbie Thacher, Open Scholarship Intern
Abbie Thacher, Open Scholarship Intern