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Teaching Students With Disabilities

Students bring a unique set of strengths and experiences to college, and students with disabilities are no exception. While many learn in different ways, their differences do not imply inferior capacities. There is no need to dilute curriculum or to reduce course requirements for the disabled student. However, special accommodations may be needed, as well as modifications in the way information is presented and in methods of testing and evaluation. Faculty will be aided in these efforts by drawing upon the student's own prior learning experiences, using available college and department resources, and collaborating with the campus Disabled Student Programs & Services (DSPS).

Specific suggestions for teaching disabled students can be discussed with the DSPS Specialists, however the following general considerations may be helpful.

1. Identifying the Disabled Student

Determining that a student is disabled may not always be a simple process. Visible disabilities are noticeable through casual observation an immediately recognizable physical impairment, for example, or the use of a cane, a wheelchair or crutches.

Other students may have hidden disabilities, such as hearing deficiencies, legal blindness, cardiac conditions, learning disabilities, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and psychiatric or seizure disorders, all of which are usually not apparent.

Finally, there are students with multiple disabilities, which are caused by such primary conditions as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Depending on the nature and progression of the illness or injury, it may be accompanied by a secondary impairment in mobility, vision, speech, or coordination which may, in fact, pose greater difficulties.

Some disabled students will identify themselves as such by contacting the Disabled Student Programs & Services office and their instructors before or early in the semester. Others, especially those with "hidden" disabilities, may not because of shame, their distaste for pity, or their fear of disbelief either about the legitimacy of their problem or the need for accommodation. Such students, in the absence of instructional adjustment, may run into trouble in their college work. In a panic they may self identify just before an examination and expect instant attention to their needs.

The faculty member should make an announcement at the beginning of the term inviting students with disabilities to schedule appointments. If you suspect that a student has a disability, discuss the question with the student. You may find such an approach awkward, at least initially, but the end result will be extremely beneficial if the student's condition is made known at the very outset.

2. Dividing the Responsibilities

To the extent manageable, disabled students bear the primary responsibility, not only for identifying their disabilities, but for making necessary adjustments to the learning environment for reading and taking notes, for example. For testing arrangements and the use of department resources, the cooperation of the faculty member is vital.

3. Faculty-Student Relationships

Dialogue between the student and instructor is essential early in the term, and follow-up meetings are recommended. Faculty should not feel apprehensive about discussing the student's disabling condition as it relates to the course. There is no reason to avoid using terms that refer to the disability, such as "blind," and "see," or "walk." However, care should be taken to avoid generalizing a particular limitation to other aspects of a student's functioning. The disabled student will probably have had some experience with the kind of initial uneasiness you may bring to the relationship. The student's own suggestions, based on experience with the disability and with, school work, are invaluable in accommodating disabilities in college.

The "Disability Etiquette" web page has information on working with people with disabilities.

4. Attendance and Promptness

The student using a wheelchair or other assistive devices may encounter obstacles or barriers in getting to class on time. Others may have periodic or irregular curtailments of functioning, either from their disability or from medication. Flexibility in applying attendance and promptness rules to such students would be helpful.

5. Classroom Adjustments

A wide range of disabled students may be served in the classroom by making book lists available prior to the beginning of the term; by thoughtful seating arrangements, by speaking directly toward the class, and by writing key lecture points and assignments on the chalkboard.

6. Functional Problems

In addition to the adjustments for each category of disability, some understanding is required in coping with more subtle and sometimes unexpected manifestations of disability. Chronic weakness and fatigue characterize some disabilities and medical conditions. Drowsiness, fatigue or impairments of memory or speed may result from prescribed medications. Such curtailments of functioning and interference with the student's ability to perform should be distinguished from the apathetic behavior it may resemble.

7. Note-Taking

Students who cannot take notes or have difficulty taking notes adequately would be helped by allowing them to tape-record lectures, by assisting them in borrowing classmates' notes, or by making an outline of lecture materials available to them.

8. Testing and Evaluation

Depending on the disability, the student may require the administration of examinations orally, the use of readers and/or scribes, extension of time for exams, a modification of the test formats or, in some cases, make-up or take-home exams. For out-of-class assignments, the extension of deadlines may be justified. The objective of such special considerations should always be to accommodate the student's learning differences, not to water down scholastic requirements. The same standards should be applied to disabled students as to all other students in evaluation and assigning grades.

Adapted from "Reasonable Accommodations," The City College of New York.

9. Teaching Students with Specific Disabilities

Practical suggestions on how to work with students with disabilities, possible accommodations, and definitions of the disabilities:

10. Resources for Teachers

The DSPS Department has two excellent videotapes on working with students with disabilities. These are available from the Alternate Media Facilitator, ext. 2825.

  • Do-It! Fully Including Students with Disabilities in Math and Science Classes.
  • Do-It! Building the Team: Faculty, Staff and Students Working Together.

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