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Designing Accessible Programs

Summer is coming, y'all, and it's an exciting time for camps, clubs, churches, etc. Communities everywhere are stepping up to create programs & activities for students this summer and with that comes a conversation starter that many shy away from:

What does that look like for people and families impacted by disabilities?

Without intentional planning and forethought about how to create disability-inclusive spaces in places, programs, & events, there's a very real chance that an entire group of people are left unnoticed and un-included.

If you're a person who will be involved in any summer shenanigans in your community or church but aren't sure where you can ACTUALLY start when it comes to seeing things through the lens of disability access & inclusion, then keep reading. I'm going to hook you up with 3 PROACTIVE considerations to help you can plan and organize your space to make it more disability-friendly & accessible.

During my early years of being a special education teacher, I started my school year focused on the lessons & instructional planning,, then on getting things in order. I remember being so jazzed about lesson planning and creating activities that I gave very little thought to some of the foundational needs of a successful classroom.

Spoiler alert: that strategy resulted in a hot mess!

I quickly learned to re-prioritize my planning so that it was far more purposeful and intentional, thus creating a more accessible and appropriately designed classroom for my learners.

It all boiled down to 3 things:

infographic of 3 parts of planning: visions, structures, & procedures


vision = what/why

"The one thing that you have that nobody else has is YOU. Your voice. Your mind. Your story. Your vision." -Neil Gaiman

I hope I'm not making a ridiculous leap here, but you are likely reading this because you are actively working to make a positive impact in the lives of others throughout whatever it is that you're planning. There's also a chance that you may not have a lot of experience in the area of disability-accessibility & inclusion, and that's ok!

As a former special education teacher, I always had a picture in my head of what my classroom would look like. This vision probably ranged from aesthetics, functionality, learner outcomes, thematic units, instructional approaches, etc, and changed from year to year, depending on the needs of my students. I knew what the end goal of my classroom was for each day, so that helped me create a vision about how to make it happen. Think of your vision as your what & why.

Before any organization can occur, take a few minutes to think about what vision you have for your program (club, church, sport, etc.) this year:

  • What do you expect the day-to-day outcome to look like for attendees?

  • What are characteristics of people who will be attending your program?

  • What is the purpose of (insert your awesome club, church, program, activity, sport, etc.)?

  • What known needs will be presented?

  • What are possible barriers that may arise?

  • How does (insert your awesome club, church, program, activity, sport, etc.) advance the mission of the organization?

  • What is needed for (insert your awesome club, church, program, activity, sport, etc.) to be both physically & socially/emotionally accessible for people impacted by disabilities?

colored graphic with block text that reads "yes to fun, no to chaos"

Though not an extensive or exhaustive list by any means, having conversations around these questions can help instill clarity.

Many people do not thrive in places of chaos & disorder. People with autism, anxiety disorders, & attention disorders can be greatly impacted (and not in a good way) by unpredictable-ness & chaos, thus making whatever "fun" inaccessible. There's a lot more to say on fun vs chaos, but that'll have to be in another post ; )

Having a vision AHEAD of time will help give you insight about how to PLAN accordingly.


structure = space

When you think of structure, think of physical spaces. There are 2 big factors worth considering when looking at structural organization:

  • physical layout

  • materials & storage

Physical Layout

First things first: start with the layout of your space. This could be a classroom, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a conference room, etc. Structural organization refers to the physical layout of the space you will be using.

Kick it off by taking full inventory of your furniture options & allotted space. After taking a full inventory of your furniture options, available space, and vision, consider what the physical layout needs to look like to assure functionality and access for all learners. During my time in the classroom, these are the guiding questions I would use to get started. These could easily be applied to various environments, such as church:

  • Do you need desks, tables, or other seating alternatives?

  • What about a teacher's desk or work area? What do you NEED in order to make the space functional?

  • How can furniture be arranged so that it's functional, safe, and accessible?

  • Is the arrangement conducive to the learning of your students & the vision you have for your classroom?

  • How can the space be arranged so that everyone can have meaningful access?

quote on graphic that looks like torn paper that reads "simply being close in physical proximity is not the same as being meaningfully and purposefully included"

A tip I learned years ago was to sketch a scale floorplan of your classroom and then draw in the pieces before you begin any heavy moving. This will allow you to intentionally plan your space and visually see it, shuffle it, and tweak it before moving a single piece of furniture. In this stage, consider width of spaces, distances between doors, tables, & seating, as well as height of furniture. These may seem like little details that don't have much of an impact, but they do.

Materials & storage

Another logistical piece of structural organization consists of how your materials and resources are stored. When thinking about materials and storage, it's important to keep in mind accessibility and frequency of use.

Keeping items accessible allow you to not only be aware of what you've got but also increases the likelihood of use with fidelity. Is (insert whatever item/resource/etc.) going to be used daily? Weekly? Does it need to be accessible in a grab-and-go fashion?

When organizing materials and storage, a HUGE component to consider is the frequency of use. How often will you need to utilize (insert whatever)? Daily? Weekly? Where will it need to be, physically in the classroom, so that you can utilize it with ease?

To organize your materials and storage, here are some of the more common strategies I've seen implemented successfully:

  • Labeling items & their homes; everything has a home

  • Color coding materials

  • Removing clutter: If it's not for functional use, what's it doing? Excessive busyness is distracting for learned with inhibited executive functioning skills.

  • Keep THE most important things, THE most important things: What's necessary? That comes first. What's jazz, fluff & bonus? That comes way later.

Visual clutter can be extremely challenging for people with visual processing disorders, attention and focus disorders, & sensory sensitivities. It can be overstimulating and distracting, which ultimately takes away from your vision (unless your vision is to cause chaos, and if that's the case, maybe consider seeking alternative plans).


procedure = how

Procedural organization looks different for every space because this type of organization is derived from the needs of each specific environment and dynamic. Think of procedural organization as the customized operating manual for your space: it explains how different processes occur.

Because procedural organization varies, there are many pieces to consider. I'll share some of the more common areas that need some clearly stated procedures to flow successfully.

Some standard processes and procedures may include, but certainly are not limited to:

  • What does the day-to-day routine and schedule look like?

  • How will changes to schedules or routines & other important information be communicated to families, volunteers, etc.? Is there a "point person" or specific language to use (or avoid)?

  • What procedures are in place for arrival & dismissal to ensure safety is prioritized?

  • How will medical events & emergencies be handled? What about people with complex needs? Behavior challenges? Disruptive and unexpected guests?

  • What known accommodations need to be considered and planned for?

  • What does planning look like? Is there sufficiently enough of time to complete all activities? What about unstructured time?

Procedural planning looks different for churches, schools, sports organizations, camps, etc., but these types of questions can help you get started.

If you're looking at your summer program with overwhelm and an unclear starting spot, consider starting with the basics:

  • setting a clear vision

  • determining structural organization

  • developing procedures & processes

One thing you may have noticed is the limited number of references I've made to specific disabilities and characteristics.

That's purposeful.

While many people impacted with disabilities have specific needs related to organization and access, there are many things that are just good for everyone. In education, we refer to this as "just good teaching".

When we approach planning through the lens of "how can this be more accessible to EVERYONE?", we don't ONLY plan for those with specific needs. We plan for everyone.

graphic with a banner across the top and words that say "what's necessary for some is good for all"

Let's talk again soon!



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