Disability-Specific Accommodations

Suggestions for Instructing Individuals with Specific Disabilities

Presented below is an overview of disabilities common on college campuses, the major challenges facing student with these disabilities, and thoughts for how college faculty members can best accommodate these students. Varying types may require differing adaptations to your classroom experience.

Acquired Brain Injuries

Effects from an acquired brain injury can be both physical and/or psychological including subtle cognitive and behavioral disturbances which can impact academic performance. A student with an acquired brain injury may experience difficulties with memory, retaining information, or retrieving information. Communication skills may be affected in either the expressive or receptive modes. Some motor impairment may also be evident. Accommodations for students who have an acquired brain injury are often similar to those accommodations for students with learning disabilities.

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Blindness and Visual Impairments


The major challenge facing students who are blind is the overwhelming mass of printed material with which they are confronted: textbooks, class outlines, class schedules, bibliographies, campus newspapers, posters, tests, etc. The increasing use of films, videotapes, overhead projectors, and the Internet adds to the volume of visual material to which they must have access in some other way.

By the time these students reach college (unless newly blinded), they have probably developed various methods for dealing with the volume of visual materials. Most students who are blind use a combination of methods including computers, readers, Brailled books, and taped lectures.

Course Adaptations

When there is a student who is blind in the classroom, the professor should remember that "this and that" phrases are basically meaningless to the student. For example, "the sum of this plus that equals this" or "the lungs are located here and the diaphragm here" can be confusing. In the first example, the instructor may be writing on the chalk board and can just as easily say, "The sum of 4 plus 7 equals 11." The student in this case is getting the same information as a sighted student. In the second example, the instructor may be pointing to a model or to the body itself. In this instance, the professor can "personalize" the locations of the lungs and diaphragm by asking the class members to locate them by touch on their own bodies. Examples of this type will not always be possible. However, if the faculty member is sensitized not to use strictly visual examples, the student who is blind, and probably the rest of the class, will benefit.

Another area in which the student who is blind will need an adaptation is in testing.

Some faculty members are concerned about having their lectures tape recorded - whether the student is blind or sighted. When an instructor is planning to publish his or her lectures, the fear may be that the tapes will somehow interfere with these plans. If this is the case, the faculty member may ask the student to sign an agreement not to release the recording or otherwise hinder the instructor's ability to obtain a copyright.

Faculty members can be very helpful by choosing class texts early. If texts are selected early, make this information available through a departmental office, the campus bookstore, or your webpage so that the student has time to make the necessary arrangements.

Some students who are blind use Dog Guides. There is no need to worry that the dog guide will disturb the class. Dog guides are very highly trained and disciplined. Most of the time the dog will lie quietly under or beside the table or desk. The greatest disruption a professor can expect may be the occasional yawn or stretch. Sometimes a rescue siren can cause a low moan. It is good to remember that, as tempting as it may be to pet a dog guide, the dog, while in a harness, is responsible for guiding its owner who cannot see. The dog guide should not be distracted from that duty.

Courses which are extremely "visual" by their very nature can be accommodated for the student who is blind. However, it should not be assumed automatically that this will be necessary. Conversations between the student and the professor can lead to new and even exciting instructional techniques that can benefit the entire class. For example, it is often thought that a student who is blind or visually impaired cannot take a course in art appreciation ad that if this is a requirement for graduation, it should be accommodated. However, the student should have the opportunity to become familiar with the world's great art as any other "educated" person. A classmate or reader who is particularly talented at verbally describing visual images can assist the student as a visual "interpreter" or "translator". There is no reason for the student not to know what the "Mona Lisa" (or other great works of art) looks like. It can be described, and there are poems written about the "Mona Lisa" that may be used as teaching aids to give more insight and understanding to the work. Miniature models of great works of sculpture can be made available for display and touching in the classroom. Many modern museums have tactile galleries. One student was able to learn proper technique in an archery class when a rope was stretched perpendicular to a target. A "beeper" added to the target assisted with positioning. The point here is that certain disabilities do not automatically preclude participation in certain activities or classes.

Students, professors, and advisors must be careful not to lower expectations solely on the basis of disability. If classes involve field trips to out-of-class locations, discuss traveling needs with the student. In most instances all that will be required is for a member of the class to act as a sighted guide. In localities where public transportation is adequate, many persons who are blind travel quite independently.

Visual Impairments

Between 70 and 80 percent of all legally blind persons in the United States have measurable vision. The student with a visual impairment meets the challenge of disability in much the same way as the student who is blind. This includes the use of readers, audio taped texts or e-text, raised line drawings, computers with screen magnification software, etc. In addition, students with visual impairments may be able to use large print books, a closed-circuit TV , or other magnifying devices. The student may also produce papers in large print. Some students with partial sight will be able to take notes in class by printing very large with a felt tip pen or marker. Others will tape record lectures for later use.

Any potential difficulties can be alleviated if the student and professor discuss the student's needs early in the term. Sitting in the front of the room, having large print on the chalk board, or the use of enlarged print on an overhead projector may assist a student with visual impairments. However, the capacity to read printed materials depends so greatly on conditions such as the degree of contrast, brightness, and color that it is preferable to have the student and instructor discuss what methods, techniques, or devices may be used to maximum advantage.

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Deafness and Hard-of-Hearing

Communicating with the Student

The major challenge facing the student who is deaf or hard-of-hearing is communication. Speech or lip reading is a partial solution. At best, a person who is deaf can read only 30 to 40 percent of the sounds of spoken English by watching the speaker's lips.

A form of communication used by many, but not all persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, is American Sign Language or "manual" communication. In sign language, thoughts are expressed through a combination of hand and arm movements, positions, and gestures. The intensity and repetition of the movements and the facial expressions accompanying the movements are also important elements of manual communication.

Fingerspelling is usually used in sign language. Fingerspelling consists of various finger and hand positions for each of the letters of the alphabet. This alphabet is called the American Manual Alphabet.

Students who are deaf will also communicate in writing when speech reading, sign language, or fingerspelling cannot be used effectively. Faculty members should not hesitate to write notes when necessary to communicate with a student. Many student can, and do, speak. Most people have normal organs of speech and many learn to use them in speech classes. Some people cannot automatically control the tone and volume of their speech so the speech may be initially difficult to understand. Understanding improves as one becomes more familiar with the speech of the person.

Telecommunication Devices For the Deaf (TDD's) allow the person to use the telephone. These devices provide visual communication, rather than amplifying or modifying auditory transmission. These devices are located in the Student Disability Resource Center, the University Police Department, Human Resources, Admissions and Records, the Library, and Founders Hall.

Communicating in the Classroom

In the classroom, most students who are deaf will use an Interpreter. The presence of an interpreter in the classroom enables the student who is deaf to understand what is being said. There are two types of interpreters - oral and manual. The oral interpreter "mouths" what is being said while the manual interpreter uses sign language. The two methods are often used in combination. There is a time lag, which will vary in length depending on the situation, between the spoken word and the interpretation or translation. Thus, a deaf or hard-of-hearing student's contribution to the lecture or discussion may be slightly delayed.

Interpretation will be easier in lecture classes and more difficult in seminar or discussion classes. Because class formats are so varied, it is recommended that the professor, interpreter, and student schedule a conference early in the course to discuss any special arrangements that may be needed.

The interpreter and student will usually choose to sit in the front of the classroom. The interpreter is aware that sign language may be a distraction to the class and the professor. The interpreter has also learned that the initial curiosity of the class wanes and the professor adapts easily to the interpreter's presence. Interpreters who are certified by the Registry of the Interpreters for the Deaf subscribe to a strict code of ethics that requires confidentiality of private communications and honesty in interpretation or translation.

Students who are deaf usually have someone take notes for them because it is difficult to follow an interpreter or speech read the instructor and take notes at the same time. Most students will be able to take examinations and be evaluated in the same way as other students. If the test is written, it has been found that some students who are deaf do better if an interpreter reads and translates the questions to the student in sign language (because of English subtleties). However, many other students prefer to read tests themselves. If the method of evaluation is oral, the interpreter can serve as the reverse interpreter for the student.

Sound Amplification Systems (also called FM Listening Systems) can assist students who are hard-of-hearing but not deaf. These systems consist of a transmitter worn by the professor, and a receiver worn by the student. The transmitter sends the professor's voice to the receiver's system via FM signals, thereby improving the student's ability to hear the professor.

Assumptions should not automatically be made about the student's ability to participate in certain types of classes. For example, students many be able to learn a great deal about music styles, techniques, and rhythms by observing a visual display of the music on an oscilloscope or similar apparatus or by feeling the vibrations of music. Some students will have enough residual hearing so that amplification through earphones or Hearing Aids will allow participation. It is always best to discuss with the student the requirements of a class and to determine if there are ways that the materials can be modified so that the student can participate in what may become an exciting learning experience for all concerned.

General Tips for Communicating

with An Individual Who Is Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

The following hints compiled from publications of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and Gallaudet University, will facilitate the participation of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in (and out) of the classroom:

  • Look at the person when you speak.
  • Don't smoke, chew gum, or otherwise block the area around your mouth with your hands or other objects.
  • Speak naturally and clearly. Don't exaggerate lip movements or volume.
  • Try to avoid standing in front of windows or other sources of light. The glare from behind you makes it difficult to read lips and other facial expressions because it causes a shadow to fall on your mouth and face.
  • Using facial expressions, gestures, and other "body language" is helpful in conveying your message.
  • If you are talking through the assistance of an interpreter, direct your conversation to the individual. This is more courteous and allows the person who is deaf the option of viewing both you and the interpreter to more fully follow the flow of conversation.
  • When other people speak who may be out of the person's range of vision, repeat the question or comment and indicate who is speaking (by motioning) so the individual can follow the discussion.
  • The use of visual media may be helpful to students since slides and videotaped materials supplement and reinforce what is being said. Alteration in lighting may interfere with the student's capacity to read manual or oral communication. These materials may be difficult to interpret because of sound quality and speed of delivery. Therefore interpreter "lag" may be greater. If a written script is available, provide the interpreter and student with a copy in advance.
  • Captioned visual aids such as Captioned Films for the Deaf are extremely helpful. If appropriate, foreign language films with English subtitles are also useful.
  • When new materials will be covered which involve technical terminology not in common usage, if possible, supply a list of these words or terms in advance to the student and interpreter. Unfamiliar words are difficult to speech read or interpret.
  • Avoid speaking with your back to the person such as when writing on the chalk board. Overhead projectors are often a good substitute and allow you to face the class while writing.
  • When particularly important information is being covered, be sure to convey it very clearly. Notices of class cancellations, assignments, etc. can be put in writing or on the chalk board or web to ensure understanding.
  • Establish a system for getting messages to the student when necessary. Class cancellations can be particularly costly if an interpreter is not informed in advance of such changes.

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Environmental Allergies

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), also known as chemical hypersensitivity, total allergy syndrome, and environmental illness, include many medical conditions that share a common characteristic. Individuals with MCS become ill from eating, breathing, or absorbing small amounts of widely used "safe" chemicals. Reactions may be immediate or delayed, severe or mild. Classroom attendance can be severely affected by this disability, depending upon the physical environment of the building in which the class is held. Moving a class to a more tolerable environment in another building is an easy way to accommodate this disability. Some individuals may wear a face mask filter which enables them to function normally in an environment that is toxic to their body systems. SDRC can assist in determining appropriate accommodations which can facilitate the specific needs of individual students.

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Learning Disabilities

The California State University Office of the Chancellor defines a learning disability as:

...a generic term that refers to the heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders occur in persons of average to very superior intelligence and are presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may exist concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairments) or environmental influences (e.g., cultural/language difficulties), it is not he direct result of these conditions or influences.

It is the goal of SDRC to provide supportive services (i.e., learning strategies, study skills, self advocacy, understanding strengths and weaknesses) to ultimately work towards independence using the SDRC program for consultation and support on an "as needed basis". At the post secondary level, once documentation of the learning disability is obtained (including a complete psychoeducational assessment), it is the responsibility of SDRC to respond to the student's request for services. The provision of services is required only if the student informs SDRC of a disabling condition and requests services.

Academic adjustments may include use of auxiliary equipment (assistive technologies), and modifications in testing procedures. Specific examples include administering an exam with additional time in a private room, or permitting a student to tape record lectures. Typically, auxiliary aids for students with learning disabilities include access to taped or e-text textbooks, readers, computers, and lecture notes.

The appropriate services for each individual is determined by the SDRC counselor and the student through the interpretation of the student's diagnostic assessment and academic history. It is essential to recognize the individual nature of a learning disability for any student who requests services. SDRC, together with the student and faculty, will often work to develop a means of effectively meeting the individual's needs.

Some students are unable to communicate effectively through printing or cursive writing (dysgraphia). This condition manifests itself in written work that appears careless. For these students, assistive technology may be the answer to independently completing course work. Another solution is for the student to dictate answers to a scribe.

Other students may have difficulty processing information received auditorily, such as in a class lecture. Many of the techniques that assist students who are deaf will also assist these student. Still other students will have difficulty with sequential memory tasks involving letters (spelling), numbers (mathematics), and following step-by-step instructions. For these students it will help to break up tasks into smaller parts. In general, the students learn better when multiple sensory modalities are used in the teaching/learning process: visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic.

Because the expectation is that a college student will absorb information, communicate it and be evaluated through the printed page, the student with a learning disability may need assistance and support from professors in finding innovative ways of receiving and transmitting information and in being evaluated. Because a learning disability is "hidden", the instructor may have understandable doubts about the validity of these alternative approaches. However, the fact remains that the student's capacity for learning is intact. It is only the means by which information is processed that is different.

Assistive Technology

Often, assistive technology software and hardware are useful for students with learning disabilities. For many, composing at computer rather than with pencil and paper facilitates the creative process. Furthermore, voice output systems can enhance their proofing and editing skills.

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Speech Impairments

Speech impairments may be congenital or the result of illness or injury. The may be found alone or in combination with other disabilities, particularly with deafness.

Speech impairments range from problems with articulation or voice strength to being totally non-vocal. Impairments include: stuttering (repetition, blocks, and/or prolongation occasionally accompanied by distorted movements and facial expressions), chronic hoarseness (dysphonia), difficulty in finding an appropriate word or term (nominal aphasia) and esophageal speech (resulting from a Laryngectomy).

Some students will be hesitant about participating in activities that require speaking. Even if the student has adjusted well to a speech impairment, new situations may aggravate old anxieties. It is important that self-expression be encouraged, but pressure to speak is not apt to be helpful. It is important to allow time for the student to express himself or herself so that confidence can be gained. Speaking in front of a group can be an agonizing experience for anyone - the student with a speech impairment is not exception. It is also important for the instructor to accept and respond to all appropriate attempts at communication. When speaking to a person with a speech impairment, continue talking naturally. Resist the temptation to complete words or phrases for this person.

For persons who cannot speak, various communication aids are available depending on abilities to type, sign, write, etc. These aids may range from sophisticated electronic "speaking" machines, called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices.

Depending on the severity of the impairment, various adapted methods may be required for the student with a speech impairment. Some students will not require any adaptations at all. Most will need patience, encouragement, and an opportunity to develop self-confidence in an unfamiliar group. The instructor can set the tone that encourages appropriate self-expression.

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Wheelchair Users

Physical access is one of the major concerns of the student who uses a wheelchair. The student must learn routes to and from classes and across campus that do not present barriers. A barrier may be a stair, a curb, a narrow walkway, a heavy door, an elevator door that has no delay mechanism or one that is too fast, a vehicle or bicycle blocking a curb cut or ramp, a sign in the middle of what would otherwise be a wide enough walkway, etc.

Theater-type classrooms may present difficulties unless there is a large enough flat floor space in the front or rear of the room for a wheelchair to park (there must also be an entrance to and from that level.)

Classrooms with tables (provided there is an under-table clearance of at least 27.5") are more accessible to student who use wheelchairs than rooms with standard classroom desks.

It is difficult to make generalizations about the classroom needs of students who use wheelchairs because some students may be able to stand for short periods of time while others will not be able to stand at all. Some will have full use of their hands and arms while others will have minimal or no use of them. There are, however, some general considerations that will apply to most, if not all, students who use wheelchairs. Furthermore, SDRC is available to assist in seeking appropriate accommodations.

  • If a classroom or faculty office is inaccessible, it will be necessary to find an accessible location or alternate class section that is held in an accessible location. SDRC can assist in this effort.
  • If breaks between classes are short (10 minutes or less), the student who uses a wheelchair may frequently be a few minutes late. Usually, the student must wait for an elevator, take a circuitous route, wait for assistance in opening doors (unless automatic door openers are available) and maneuver along crowded paths and corridors. If a student who uses a wheelchair is frequently late, it is, of course, appropriate to discuss the situation with the student and seek solutions. Most students will be aware of time restrictions and schedule their classes accordingly. However, it is not always possible to leave enough time between classes. Early classes and attendants' schedules can pose similar difficulties.
  • If a class involves field work or field trips, ask the student to participate in the selection of sites and modes of transportation. If the University provides transportation for field trips, we are required to provide accessible transportation for students who use wheelchairs. Among its bus fleet, the University has wheelchair accessible buses.
  • Classes in physical education and recreation can almost always be modified so that the student in a wheelchair can participate. Classmates are usually more than willing to assist, if necessary. Most students who use wheelchairs do not get enough physical exercise in daily activity, so it is particularly important that they be encouraged, as well as provided the opportunity, to participate. Information on our adaptive physical education courses is available from the Physical Education Department.
  • Classes taught in laboratory settings (science, wood, and metal workshops, language labs, art studios, etc.) may require some modification of the work station. Considerations include under-counter knee clearance, working countertop height, horizontal working reach and aisle widths. Working directly with the student may be the best way to provide modifications to the work station. However, if a station is modified in accordance with established accessibility standards, the station will be usable by most students in wheelchairs.
  • For those students who may not be able to participate in a laboratory class without the assistance of an aide, the student should be allowed to benefit from the actual lab work to the fullest extent. The student can give all instructions to an aide - from what chemical to add to what type of test tube to use to where to dispose of used chemicals. The student will learn everything except the physical manipulation of the chemicals.
  • Students are not "confined" to wheelchairs. They often transfer to automobiles and to furniture. Some who use wheelchairs can walk with the aid of canes, braces, crutches, or walkers. The chair may be a means to conserve energy or move about more quickly.
  • Most students who use wheelchairs will ask for assistance if they need it. Don't assume automatically that assistance is required. Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist, and accept a "No, thank you" graciously.
  • When talking to a student in a wheelchair, if the conversation continues for more than a few minutes, sit down, kneel, or squat if convenient.
  • A wheelchair is part of the person's body space. Don't automatically hang on or lean on the chair - it is similar to hanging or leaning on the person. It's fine if you are friends but inappropriate otherwise.
  • Because a student sitting in a wheelchair is about as tall as most children, and because a pat on the head is often used to express affection toward children, many people are inclined to reach out and pat the person using a wheelchair on the head. Such a gesture is very demeaning and patronizing.

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Other/Functional Disabilities

There are many other disabilities that largely affect mobility, such as cardiac conditions, arthritis, chronic back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, active sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and respiratory disorders. Students of short stature may have in-classroom access problems unique to their stature.

The student with Epilepsy will have little problem in the classroom. In most cases seizures will be controlled by medication. Some students with epilepsy will have learned to manage seizure activity through adequate rest, proper diet, and regular medication. Most will be able to participate in sports and lead active, normal lives. There are some whose seizure activity simply cannot be controlled.

Students who have had an ostomy (urostomy, colostomy, ileostomy) may be advised not to participate in violent contact sports or wrestling. Most permissible restrictions on participation, however, will be the result of causes other than the ostomy itself. Swimming is permissible for these students. Most have found that a matter-of-fact attitude toward their appliance encourages other student to behave in the same way.

Spinal Bifida (open spine) may cause a range of disabilities varying from no noticeable effects to hydrocephalus and paralysis. The student with spinal bifida may have short stature and may use a wheelchair, braces or crutches. Classroom modifications that may be required will depend on the student's functional limitations.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the number one cause of chronic disability among young adults, may affect the student in a multitude of ways. Because MS most often occurs between the ages of 20 and 40, the college student with MS is apt to be in the process of adjusting to the new disability. Depending on the degree to which the MS has progressed, the student's mobility, speech, vision, and emotional state may be affected. One of the most difficult aspects of MS is that the symptoms have a tendency to come and go, but they continue to progress. Periods of remission may last from a few days to months in the early stages. During an exacerbation, the student may appear as if intoxicated - slurred speech, staggering, unfocused eyes. Understanding the fluctuations that may occur in the student's behavior make it easier to understand variations in classroom performance. The physical adaptations, if any, will vary from student to student, depending on functional limitation.

Other conditions that may result in marked fluctuations of behavior and performance are Muscular Dystrophy and certain kidney problems that may necessitate dialysis. As a final note, some of the conditions described require medication for control of symptoms.

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