DSPS Faculty Resources
Information to help faculty assist disabled students in class


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 Counselors, however, the following general considerations may be helpful.

Identifying the Disabled Student

Determining that a student has a disability 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, legal blindness, cardiac conditions, learning disabilities, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and psychiatric or seizure disorders, which are not readily 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 DSPS 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.

Partners for Success and Universal Design in Learning

DSPS strongly encourages faculty to employ teaching techniques which embrace the concept of “Universal Design in Learning.” This concept originated in the world of architecture as it may apply to the creation of disability-friendly accessible features in building construction. Universal Design ”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.” Just as a wheelchair ramp provides basic access to a wheelchair user, it is also beneficial to the able-bodied instructor with a rolling cart or the traveler with a rolling suitcase. The same principals apply in the teaching and learning environment. Sample strategies include:

  • Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs. 
  • Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students; consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, field work, and so forth. 
  • UD benefits students with disabilities but also benefits others. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to deaf students, is also a benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to those watching the tape in a noisy environment. Delivering content in redundant ways can improve instruction for students with a variety of learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on a website benefits students with disabilities and everyone else. Planning ahead saves time in the long run.
Taken from “Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples” Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D. Do-It, University of Washington.

A full copy of the DSPS Faculty Guide is available for download.