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Teaching Students with Disabilities

When teaching a student with any disability, remember, you are the model for the students in your class in how you respond to the student with the disability. Encourage the student to participate in the class activities and be sensitive to the student’s needs, but do not expect less work or achievement from him or her.

Make your course “disability friendly.” It is helpful to put a paragraph in your syllabus welcoming students with disabilities and inviting them to make an appointment to discuss their disability and accommodations.

Students with disabilities are bound just as all students by the university’s code of conduct and should be held to that code. If a student’s behavior becomes very disruptive or dangerous or threatening, the instructor has the option of calling campus security for assistance, just as he or she would with any other student.

If your office is not in an accessible building, make appointments in places that are accessible. Consider weather conditions if a student is late for class or a meeting.

Teaching Students Who Are Deaf or Hearing Impaired

For obvious reasons, students who are deaf or hard of hearing have tremendous obstacles in an academic setting. Disabilities affect different students in different ways. For example students who are deaf or hard of hearing are not all alike. Some students can read lips and others cannot; some communicate orally and others use sign language, gestures, writing or a combination of methods. Students who have some usable hearing may use a device to a amplify sounds; in class they may rely on hearing aids alone, or they may use an “assistive listening device.” When students are using assistive listening devices, instructors may be asked to wear cordless lapel micro transmitters.

The following suggestions may improve the academic situation for students who are deaf or hearing impaired:

  • Always speak directly to the student, not the student’s sign language interpreter.
  • During class discussions, ensure that no more than one person speaks at a time. When a member of the class asks a question, repeat the question before answering.
  • Use visual aids whenever possible, such as a blackboard, overhead projector, power point or handouts.
  • Loss of visual contact may mean loss of information. Unless a student is using a sign language interpreter, be sure that the student has visual contact with you before you begin lecturing. Avoid giving information while handing out papers or writing in the board.
  • Place a simple lesson outline on the board.
  • Write homework assignments on the board to include due dates and other important information.
  • Provide seats in the front of the classroom so students with hearing impairments can get as much from visual and auditory clues as possible.
  • When reading directly from the text, provide an advanced copy and pause slightly when interjecting information not in the text.

Teaching Students with Chronic Illness or Pain

Some students have disabilities that are not easy to see, but can cause many obstacles in an educational setting. Students can be disabled by chronic illnesses such as Asthma, Arthritis, Diabetes, HIV, AIDS, Cardiopulmonary Disease, Cancer, Chronic Fatigue, Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and seizure disorders to name a few. They can also be disabled by medical conditions that cause intense and continual pain: for example, repetitive stress injury, post-surgery injury, and back problems. Symptoms of all these conditions can be unpredictable and fluctuating. Students with chronic illness or pain may have limited energy and difficulty walking, standing or sitting for a long time. Their pain, and/or side-effects of medications, may cause them to become dizzy or confused, making it hard for them to pay attention in classes, complete out of class assignments, do library research, and stayed focused during exams.

The following suggestions may help you work effectively with students who have disabling medical conditions:

  • Medical conditions, including medication side effects may cause problems with fatigue and stamina, which may have a negative affect on concentration during a test or exam. For this reason students with medical conditions may need extended time on exams.
  • Students with some medical conditions may become dizzy or may lack physical stamina. This may cause them to be unable to get from one building to another or from one campus to another quickly. For these reasons, a student may be late getting to a class. Please be patient when this happens. If tardiness becomes a problem please notify the Office of Human Services.
  • Adaptive seating may be needed for students with physical disabilities. Students who use motorized wheelchairs may need a different style desk. When you have a student with this need in you classroom, please make sure no other student sits at the adaptive desk during that class time. If the necessary seating is not in place, please notify the OHS.
  • Instructors in courses requiring field trips or internships need to work with their students to make sure they are able to travel easily to these locations. For example the student may need assistance with transportation. The OHS can help with these arrangements.
  • Some students experience recurrence of a chronic condition requiring bed rest and/or hospitalization. In most situations students are able to make up the incomplete work but they may need extra exam time.

Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities have many causes: for example, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT), to name a few. Students with physical disabilities will use many different ways to mobilize themselves around campus. Some will use wheelchairs or scooters, others will use crutches, canes, braces and walkers.

The following information may help you better understand the needs of a student with a physical disability.

  • Students who have upper body limitations will have note takers or tape recorders with them to get the class notes. Extra room may be needed for them in the front row of the classroom.
  • Extra exam time will be needed for the students with upper body limitations because they are either dictating their answers to their note taker or they write very slowly due to their disability. A quiet place will be needed for students taking the test using a note taker so they do not interrupt the their classmates.
  • Students with upper body limitations have difficulty raising their hand in class. Discuss with the student how you will recognize they wish to contribute to the classroom discussion.
  • A wheelchair is part of a person’s personal space. No one should touch it, lean on it or try to push it without being given permission by the owner. A space in the classroom will need to be made to fit the wheelchair. Most classrooms should have the proper seating/desk already in place. If this is not true in your classroom, contact the OHS to take care of this problem.
  • Be aware that a student may choose to transfer out of their wheelchair into the seating in the classroom.
  • Please understand that for reasons beyond their control students with severe physical disabilities may be late to class. Some are unable to move quickly from one location to the next due to congestion on campus, congested elevators, or bad weather conditions. If they live off campus they may be at the mercy of public transportation. Please discuss with the student how you would like them to handle coming into your class late. If tardiness becomes a chronic problem please report this to the OHS.
  • Instructors who require field trips or internships for their course need be aware of the transportation issues for their disabled students. After discussing transportation needs with the disabled student, either the instructor or student needs to contact the OHS if assistance is necessary.
  • Not all physical disabilities are constant and unchanging. Some students may experience set backs or relapses requiring bed rest or hospitalization. In most cases, the student will be able to complete their work, but they may need extra time.
  • Students who have limited fine motor skills (difficulties writing or pain while writing) may need extended time for tests and exams.

Teaching Students Who Are Blind or Have a Visual Disability

Students who are visually disabled vary considerably. Some have no vision, others can see large shapes and some can read standard print if magnified. Depending on their disability, they use a variety of accommodations and equipment. Most students who are visually disabled will need extended time for tests, exams and projects and will use readers at these times. Like many students with disabilities, students who are visually disabled are at a disadvantage academically. They can hear lectures and discussions but are often frustrated by textbooks, chalkboard diagrams, overhead projectors, films, maps, printed exams. Most students who are visually disabled take advantage of technology. Computers can enlarge print, read the text on the screen aloud, scan books and articles, and convert print to Braille. Portable note-taking devices, talking calculators and tape recorders may also be used.

The following are suggestions on teaching students who are visually disabled:

  • Before the semester begins have your reading list available. Some of your students will need time to order the books on tape for the course.
  • Students who are visually disabled should be allowed to sit in the front of the classroom, if desired, to be able to hear clearly and see as much as possible.
  • When using the overhead projector with transparences, provide students who are visually disabled a printed copy of the material. Talk to the student a head of time to know what size print should be used.
  • Allow students to use a tape recorder or a note taker.
  • Read aloud any material you print on the chalkboard.