Teaching & Interacting with Students with Disabilities

Faculty impart knowledge to students and evaluate whether students have learned the material by creating assignments and exams that allow the student to demonstrate mastery based on course goals, objectives and the nature of the curriculum. Having an understanding of a disability and the limitations caused by that disability is essential when teaching to and interacting with students whose learning styles are different from their peers.

Students with Learning Disabilities and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Often called “invisible disabilities”, students with Learning Disabilities (LD’s) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) make up a significant percentage of students registered with PASS. Examples of LD’s include Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Math Disorders, and Nonverbal Learning Disorders. Students are diagnosed after a battery of testing with results that indicate a lack of achievement at age and ability level and a severe discrepancy between achievement and intelligence.

Examples of limitations faced by these students are:

  • Inability to change from one task to another
  • Difficulty scheduling time to complete short and long-term assignments
  • Difficulty completing tests without additional time
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty concentrating in lectures
  • Problems with grammar
  • Impulsiveness
  • Difficulty delaying resolution to a problem
  • Difficulty taking notes
  • Slow reading rate
  • Poor comprehension and retention of material read
  • Difficulty with basic math operations
  • Difficulty with reasoning

When preparing your lectures, and then presenting the materials, consider the following:

  • Leave overheads up longer than you think necessary for you to copy
  • Make lectures interactive
  • Make notes available on the internet
  • Maintain student attention by varying delivery approach
  • Move around the room
  • Summarize or draw conclusions at the end of the lecture

Commonly used accommodations for students with LD’s that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter:

  • Extended time for testing
  • Use of a computer with a spell-checking program
  • Writing on the test, rather than using Scantrons
  • Use of a calculator
  • Access to Lecture (e.g., audio record lectures, detailed PowerPoints, copy of notes, copies of overheads, handouts, lecture notes, etc.)
  • Preferential seating

Accommodations for students with ADHD may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter:

  • Reduced distraction environment for testing
  • Extended time for testing
  • Preferential seating near the front of the class
  • Access to Lecture (e.g., audio record lectures, detailed PowerPoints, copy of notes, etc.)

Students with Visual Impairments

There are two categories of visual disabilities: blindness and low vision. Between 70 and 80 percent of all persons in the United States identified with visual disabilities actually have some residual and functional vision, and may use a term such as low vision.  To be diagnosed with low vision, visual acuity has to be 20/70 or less in the better eye after the best possible correction, or have a constricted visual field (peripheral vision) of 30 degrees or less.  To be diagnosed as legally blind, visual acuity has to be 20/200 or less in the better eye after the best possible correction or a have a visual field (peripheral vision) of 20 degrees or less.

Academic limitations can be the result of constricted peripheral vision, progressive loss of vision, and/or fluctuation of visual acuity.  Visual disabilities may result in difficulties with the following activities:

  • Mobility around campus and in the classroom
  • Ability to take notes in class
  • Ability to see classroom visual aids, writing on a chalkboard, etc.
  • Reading standard print materials
  • Finding transportation
  • Obtaining textbooks in an alternative format and in a timely manner (audio, large print, Braille)

Some examples of accommodations used by students who are blind or have low vision that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter include:

  • Large print or Braille handouts, signs, equipment labels
  • Directions, notices, assignments in electronic format provided in advance of the class
  • Printed materials on colored paper or materials in high contrast
  • Computers with enlarged screen images
  • Seating where the lighting is best
  • Audio, Braille, electronic formats for notes, handouts, texts
  • Describe visual aids (text or audio descriptions)
  • Computers with optical character readers, voice-activated computers, voice output, Braille keyboards, and printers
  • Extended time for testing and assignments
  • Use of a reader and/or scribe for exams
  • Use of tinted glasses for indoors/outdoors
  • Access to Lecture (e.g., audio record lectures, detailed PowerPoints, copy of notes, copies of overheads, handouts, lecture notes, etc.)

Students with Hearing Diagnoses

Communication access is the most common barrier between students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and their hearing peers and instructors. Some of these students use American Sign Language and do not speak English. They often identify with other people of similar upbringing and prefer to be called Deaf with a capital D. People who became deaf later in life may call themselves Deaf or hard-of-hearing based on the degree of hearing loss they experience.

Examples of disability-related limitations include:

  • Listening to and understanding lecture information
  • Taking notes in class
  • Working effectively in group projects or class discussions

Commonly used accommodations that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter:

  • Interpreters, real-time transcription, assistive listening systems, note-taking assistance
  • Face student when speaking
  • Written copies of any oral instructions (directions, assignments, lab instructions)
  • Visual aids, visual warning systems
  • Repeat questions and statements from others
  • Electronic mail for communicating
  • Captioned videos and transcripts of audio recordings

Students with Chronic Health Disabilities

Chronic illnesses include conditions affecting one or more of the body’s functions. These conditions can include but are not limited to, the respiratory, immunological, neurological, and circulatory systems. There can be several different impairments and they can vary significantly in their effects and symptoms. In general, these conditions can vary in severity and length of time and can be very unstable.

Examples of chronic medical conditions include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy/seizure disorder
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Renal disease/failure

Academic difficulties can include:

  • Mobility around campus and in the classroom
  • Taking notes in class
  • Concentration/attention
  • Fatigue (physical and mental)
  • Time management
  • Anxiety
  • Missing classes due to symptoms or treatment of a medical condition

Most commonly requested accommodations that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter:

  • Access to Lecture (e.g., audio record lectures, detailed PowerPoints, Copy of Notes, etc.)
  • Flexible attendance requirements
  • Extra exam time on assignments and exams
  • Assignments in electronic formats
  • Communication through electronic mail
  • Absences due to symptomatology and medical appointments

Students with Mental Health Disabilities

Mental Health disabilities may not be apparent, but they can have a dramatic impact on interpersonal and school behavior that affects the learning process. These disabilities cover a wide range of conditions that may be chronic or reoccurring. With appropriate treatment, many mental health-related disabilities can be effectively controlled or improved. However, treatment, which often combines medications and psychotherapy and may effectively stop acute symptoms or halt the downward spiral in some individuals, sometimes causes additional limitations as a result of prescribed medications.

Examples of some mental health disabilities are:

    • Major depression
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Severe anxiety disorders
    • Sleep disorders
    • Eating disorders
    • Substance-related disorders

Academic difficulties can include:

    • Concentration
    • Cognitive (short term memory difficulties)
    • Distractibility
    • Time management
    • Impulsiveness
    • Fluctuating stamina causing class absences
    • Irritability
    • Feelings of fear and anxiety about exams

Accommodations that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter can include:

    • Preferential seating, near door
    • Prearranged or frequent breaks
    • Permit use of computer software
    • Extended time on assignments and exams
    • Reduced distraction testing environment

Students with Physical Disabilities

The phrase “physical disability” is used to describe a wide range of physical limitations and diagnoses, the most common of which would be someone that uses a wheelchair or other mobility device. Some limitations may be very severe and noticeable, while others are almost hidden or non-apparent.  The most common barrier to academic success for a person with a physical disability is access. Access takes many forms, from a class assigned in an inaccessible building to the person’s own limitations preventing them from taking class notes. As with all other disabilities and impairments, it is important to treat students with physical disabilities fairly. Students with physical disabilities typically are very knowledgeable of both their limitations and abilities and are accustomed to communicating their needs to others.

Examples of physical disabilities include:

    • Wheelchair users
    • Amputees
    • Speech impairments
    • Muscular Dystrophy
    • Multiple Sclerosis

Some limitations of students with physical disabilities are:

    • Difficulty writing, such as class notes and on exams
    • Sitting in a standard desk
    • Participating in labs where lab tables and equipment are hard to reach
    • Transportation
    • Classrooms or buildings that are not wheelchair accessible

Possible accommodations that may appear on the ODA Accommodation Letter include:

    • Relocating a class or lab to an accessible building/space
    • Access to Lecture (e.g., audio record lectures, detailed PowerPoints, copy of notes, copies of overheads, handouts, lecture notes, etc.)
    • Accessible seating or table in the classroom
    • Scribe for Scantrons and/or essay exams
    • Additional time for completing exams

Students with Autism

College campuses are seeing an increase in the number of students who are diagnosed with Autism. Individuals who present on the Autism spectrum understand and respond to the thoughts and feelings of others in different ways compared to other individuals. Please note that no two students with Autism are alike in terms of how they respond to others and experience the educational environment.

Below are some examples of what one may encounter when working with students who present on the autism spectrum:

    • Some students present as naïve or very literal when encountering their peers or others in the campus community. They may not understand jokes, irony, and metaphors.
    • Some students may talk “at” rather than “to” people, disregarding the listener’s interest.
    • Some students may talk too loud, stand too close, and maintain poor eye contact.
    • Some individuals do not accurately convey the intensity of their emotions until they are full-blown, such that the reaction may appear to be far more intense than the situation warrants.
    • Although individuals may crave social interaction, their manner may be leaving them feeling misunderstood and isolated.
    • Difficulty “fitting in” with other college students.
    • Social immaturity (interest in relationships can be appropriate for their physical developmental level, but their social developmental level may lag behind).
    • Lack of structure (students may not know what to do with much more free time than in high school)
    • Difficulty with classes that are not within their interests (often may not see the relevance of “core curriculum” classes).
    • Difficulty dealing with ambiguity and lack of problem-solving skills.

When interacting with students on the Autism spectrum:

    • Use clear, specific language (avoid slang or regional terms).
    • Give specific directions.
    • Find out the students’ strengths and limitations and advise accordingly.
    • Get to know the student so he/she will feel comfortable coming to you with problems.
    • Help connect students to an academic advisor or other professionals who can be a resource.
    • Set explicit guidelines for classroom behavior.
    • Parents may be more involved in their student’s lives compared to other students.
    • Communicate with PASS if you observe any behavior or interactions that you are unsure of how to approach.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design (UD) is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.  Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.  The intent of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to make academic environments accessible for all students by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. 

Universal Design Examples for Instruction: 

  • Create an environment that respects and values diversity. Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other learning needs. 
  • Assure that all classroom labs and fieldwork are in locations accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities. 
  • Use multiple modes to deliver content (including lecture, discussion, hands-on activities, online interaction, and fieldwork). 
  • Provide printed and electronic materials that summarize content that is delivered orally. 
  • Face the class, speak clearly and loudly if in a large space. Use the microphone as needed. 
  • Use captioned videos. 
  • Use accessible Web pages (text descriptions of graphics, good color contract, clear navigation, and organization). 
  • Provide access to printed materials early so that students can prepare to access the materials in alternate formats if needed. 
  • Create printed and Web-based materials in simple, consistent formats. 
  • Provide effective prompting during activity and feedback after the assignment is completed. 
  • Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. 
  • Make sure equipment and activities minimize sustained physical effort.