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Disability support services

Working with Students with Disabilities: A Faculty/Staff Guide

Students with Disabilities

Of the approximately 1,300 students who are registered with DSS, most have learning disabilities, followed by students with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorders, psychological/mental health disabilities and medical disabilities respectively.  A smaller number of students have physical/mobility disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, sensory disabilities (e.g., deaf or hard-of-hearing; blindness or low vision), brain injuries and speech/language disabilities. While some disabilities may be readily visible, most are not obvious.  Many students also have multiple disabilities.  The following pages provide information on various types of disabilities that students may have in your classroom.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with or reduces an individual's quality of social, academic or occupational functioning.  The diagnosis is based on the current presentation of symptoms, which can be predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive or a combination of inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity.  Although some students take medication, symptoms may persist and interfere with learning and behavior.


  • Inability to sustain attention on tasks
  • Lack of close attention to details resulting at times in avoidable errors
  • Easily distracted, not seeming to listen when spoken to directly
  • Poor time management and organizational skills
  • Difficulty in being prepared for class, keeping appointments, and getting to class on time
  • Reading comprehension difficulties
  • Difficulty with math problems requiring changes in action, operation and order
  • Inability to listen selectively during lectures, resulting in problems with note-taking
  • Lack of organization in written work
  • Difficulty following directions, listening and comprehending
  • Blurting out answers or interrupting others
  • Poor handwriting

Considerations and Instructional Strategies

  • Students with ADHD often also have learning disabilities.
  • These students benefit from structured classes and strategies that facilitate organization and time management.
  • Students should be allowed to choose their seat to reduce distractions and focus on the instructor.
  • Use varied instructional methods (lecture with a visual outline, group activities, web based discussions).
  • Keep instructions clear and as brief as possible.

Some Accommodations May Include

  • Preferential seating

  • Copies of classmate's or instructor's notes and/or PowerPoints
  • Audio-recording lectures
  • Extended time on tests
  • Reduced distraction testing environment


Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autisum Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social behavior, the social use of language and executive functioning (which includes planning & organizing, prioritizing, goal-setting, controlling impulses, etc.).  Students with ASD may have difficulty with understanding somebody else's thoughts, feelings and motivations. They may struggle with regulating their emotions and responding appropriately to others. Some students with Autism Spectrum Disorder can present as very quiet or even appear to be withdrawn.  They may use sophisticated vocabulary but struggle to initiate and maintain "small talk" or to engage in goal-directed conversations.  Students with ASD may have excellent rote memory but have difficulty with high-level thinking and problem solving.  Some students with ASD may be unusually sensitive to touch, sounds and/or light and may experience "sensory overload" at times.  It is important to note that Autism Spectrum Disorder can vary greatly in individuals, and it is unlikely to see all of these characteristics in a given student.


Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may demonstrate the following communication patterns and social behaviors:

  • Comments/questions may be tangential or repetitive
  • Unusual speech intonation, volume, rhythm and/or rate
  • Unusual body movements and/or repetitive behavior
  • Poor or unusual eye contact
  • Lack of awareness of personal space - yours or theirs
  • May seem to talk "at you" rather than "with you"
  • Literal understanding of language - difficulty with interpreting idioms, metaphors, sarcasm and words with double meanings
  • May have problems asking for help
  • May have problems taking another's point of view
  • May have trouble with monitoring and regulating class participation - too  much OR too little

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may demonstrate the following cognitive functioning characteristics:

  • Deficits in abstract thinking - concrete thinker, perseverates on details
  • Difficulty with using details to understand "the big picture"
  • Problems with organization that includes initiating, planning, carrying out and finishing tasks
  • Difficulties with transitioning between tasks
  • Difficulties with adjusting to schedule changes
  • Tend to be visual learners

Considerations and Instructional Strategies

  • Clearly define course requirements, dates of exams and when assignments are due - provide advance notice of any changes when possible.
  • Use concrete language and avoid using metaphors or idioms if you don't plan on explaining them.
  • Be concise and direct when giving feedback to the student.
  • Make sure all expectation are direct and explicit - don't expect the student to automatically generalize information.
  • If student's classroom behavior is problematic, meet with the student individually and give specific examples of behavior and establish strategies to use or rules to follow.
  • Provide visual aids when possible to support lectures.
  • Supplement oral with written instructions when revising syllabus, assignments, due dates, etc.
  • Ask student to repeat directions in his own words to check comprehension.
  • If group work is required, the student may need your assistance with connecting with classmates and then may benefit from you monitoring how the group is progressing.

Some Accommodations May Include

  • Copies of classmate's or instructor's notes and/or PowerPoints
  • Audio-recording lectures
  • Use of lap top for note taking
  • Extended time on tests
  • Reduced distraction testing environment
  • Use of computer for written exams
  • Reduced course load


Blindness/Low Vision

Visual impairments vary widely and may affect the person’s central vision acuity, field of vision, color
perception or binocular visual function. The following terms are used in an educational context to describe students with visual disabilities:

  • “Totally blind” students learn via Braille or other non visual media.
  • “Legally blind” indicates that the student has less than 20/200 vision in the more functional eye or
    a very limited field of vision (20 degrees at the widest point).
  • “Low vision” generally refers to a severe vision loss in distance and near vision. These students use a combination of vision and other senses to learn. They may require adaptations in lighting or the print size, and in some cases, Braille.

Considerations and Instructional Strategies

  • If needed, introduce yourself at the beginning of a conversation and notify the student when you exit the room.
  • Nonverbal cues depend on good visual acuity. Verbally acknowledging key points in the conversation facilitates the communication process.
  • A student may use a guide dog or cane for mobility assistance. A guide dog is a working animal and should not be petted.
  • When giving directions, be clear: say “left” or “right,” “step up,” or “step down.” Let the student know how many obstacles there are; for example, “the chair is to your left” or “the stairs start in about three steps.”
  • When guiding or walking with a student, verbally offer your elbow instead of grabbing his or hers.
  • Discuss special needs for labs, field trips or out-of-class activities well in advance.
  • Ask the student if he or she will need assistance during an emergency evacuation and assist in making a plan if necessary.

Some Accommodations May Include*

*Accommodations may require close collaboration between the instructor and DSS office:

  • Reading materials and syllabus in advance (to permit time to transfer to alternate formats)
  • Read aloud what is written on the board or in printed materials
  • Verbally describe visual cues or gestures used during class discussions or activities
  • Preferential seating
  • Copies of classmate's or instructor's notes and/or PowerPoints
  • Audio-recording lectures
  • Use of adapted computer with features such as voice output, large print and Braille
  • Alternate formats for textbooks, classroom assignments and tests (e.g., tapes, large print or Braille; use of readers, scribes, tape recorded responses, adapted computer for closed circuit TV)
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials
  • Extended time on tests
  • Accessible online course materials
  • Reduced course load
  • Assistance with emergency evacuation

Brain Injuries

Brain injury can be caused by insufficient oxygen, stroke, poisoning or infection.  The majority of traumatic brain injuries are concussions and typically result from accidents.  Traumatic brain injuries are among the most prevalent injuries sustained by returning veterans, many of whom will attend college.


Brain injury is unique to the individual and can affect students very differently.  Depending on the area of the brain affected by the injury a student may demonstrate difficulties with:

  • Organizing thoughts, cause-effect relationships and problem solving
  • Processing information and word retrieval
  • Generalizing and integrating skills
  • Short-term memory
  • Communication and speech
  • Social interactions
  • Balance or coordination

Considerations and Instructional Strategies

  • Brain injury can cause cognitive, physical, behavioral and personality changes that affect the student temporarily or permanently.
  • Recovery may be inconsistent.  A student might take one step forward, two back, plateau, and then unexpectedly make a series of gains.
  • While students with brain injuries share some similar learning styles with students with learning disabilities their needs do differ. Differences include the brain-injured student’s adjustment to the disability, types of memory or other cognitive difficulties, medical complications, presence of physical impairments, and the day-today fluctuation of impairments commonly experienced during recovery.
  • Effective teaching strategies include providing opportunities for a student to learn using visual,
    auditory and hands-on approaches.

Some Accommodations May Include

  • Reading materials and syllabus in advance of the term
  • Textbooks in electronic form
  • Copies of classmate's or instructor's notes and/or PowerPoints
  • Audio-recording lectures
  • Use of lap top for note taking
  • Extended time for in class assignments
  • Extended time on tests
  • Reduced distraction testing environment
  • Breaks allowed during tests; test given by page or by section
  • Use of computer for written tests
  • Alternative form of tests, such as oral test or essay instead of multiple choice format; more frequent tests
  • Calculator, spell checker, reader and/or scribe for tests
  • Reduced course load


Deaf/Hard of Hearing

A student with a hearing loss may be considered deaf or hard of hearing. A student who is deaf has a
profound hearing loss (90 decibels or greater), while a student with a hearing loss is able to use some residual hearing to communicate. Students who are deaf and hard of hearing communicate in different ways, depending on the degree of hearing loss, age of onset, and type of language or communication system they use.  Some use speech only or a combination of sign language, finger spelling, writing, body language and facial expression.  The key is to find out which combination of techniques works best with each student.  The important thing is not how you exchange ideas or feelings, but that you communicate.

In the classroom, some students will use a sign language interpreter; others will use a transcriber who will provide a written transcript of the lecture; others will use an assistive listening device that may require the instructor to wear a microphone.


Deaf or hard of hearing students may:

  • Be skilled at lip reading (also known as speech reading), but many are not; only 30 to 40 percent of spoken English is distinguishable on the mouth and lips under the best of conditions
  • Also have difficulties with speech, reading and writing skills, given the close relationship between language development and hearing
  • Use speech, lip reading, hearing aids and/or amplification systems to enhance oral communication
  • Be members of a distinct linguistic and cultural group; as a cultural group, they may have their own values, social norms and traditions
  • Use American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, with English as their second language.  ASL is not equivalent to English; it is a visual-spacial language having its own syntax and grammatical structure

Some Accommodations May Include

  • Preferential seating
  • Copies of classmate's or instructor's notes and/or PowerPoints
  • Interpreter, transcriber, and/or assistive listening device (arranged by DSS)
  • Visual aids whenever possible, including captioned videos and films
  • Extended time on tests
  • Use of computer for written exams
  • Use of interpreter for exam directions
  • Accessible online course materials
  • Reduced course load
  • Assistance with emergency evacuation

Communicating with Students who are Deaf

To communicate with a person who is deaf in a one-to-on situation:

  • Make sure you have the student’s attention before speaking. A light touch on the shoulder, wave or other visual signal will help.
  • Speak in natural tones; do not yell, exaggerate, or over enunciate.
  • If necessary, communicate by paper and pencil or by typing to each other on the computer.
  • Look directly at the student during a conversation and maintain eye contact, even when an interpreter is present.
  • Avoid standing in front of a light source, such as a window or bright light.  The bright background and shdows created on the face make it almost impossible to speech read.
  • Use open-ended questions which must be answered by more than "yes" or "no".  Do not assume that the message was understood if the student nods his or her head.  Open-ended questions ensure that your information has been communicated.

To communicate with a person who is deaf in a group situation:

  • Seat the student to his or her best advantage.  This usually means a seat opposite the speaker so that he or she may see the person's lips and body language.  The interpreter should be next to the speker and both should be illuminated clearly.
  • Provide new vocabulary in advance.  It is difficult if not impossible to speech read or to read finger spelling of unfamiliar vocabulary. 
  • If a lecture or film is presented, a brief outline or script given to the student and interpreter in advance helps them follow the presentation.
  • Avoid unnecessary pacing and speaking when writing on a blackboard.  It is difficult to speech read when a person is in motion and impossible to speech read when his back is turned. Write or draw on the blackboard first, then face the group and explain the work.  If you use PowerPoints or an overhead projector, don't look down or away while speaking.
  • Make sure the student does not miss vital information.  Provide in writing any changees in meeting times, special assignments or additional instructions.  Allow extra time when referring to the textbook since the student who is deaf must look at what is written and then return attention to the speaker or interpreter.
  • Slow down the pace of communication slightly to facilitate understanding.  Repeat questions or statements made from the back of the room.  Remember that students who are deaf are cut off from whatever happens outside of their visual area.
  • Use hands-on experience whenever possible in training situations.  Students who are deaf often learn quickly by doing.  A concept which may be difficult to explain verbally may be explained more easily by demonstration.

Using an Interpreter

  • Speak clearly and in a normal tone, facing the person using the interpreter (do not face the interpreter).  Speak directly to the deaf or hard of hearing person rather than to the interpreter, and avoid using phrases such as "tell him" or "ask her."
  • Do not rush through a lecture or presentation.  The interpreter or the deaf student may ask the speaker to slow down or repeat a sentence for clarification.  Allow time to study handouts, charts or overheads.  A deaf student cannot watch the interpreter and study written information at the same time.
  • Permit only one person at a time to speak during group discussions.  It is difficult for an interpreter to follow several people speaking at once.  Since the interpreter needs to be a few words behind the conversation, give the interpreter time to finish before the next person begins speaking so the deaf student can contribute to the discussion.
  • If a class session is more than an hour and a half, two interpreters will usually be scheduled and work on a rotating basis.
  • Provide good lighting for the interpreter.  If the situation requires darkening the room to view to a screen, appropriate lighting is required so that the deaf student can see the interpreter.
  • Any videos that are used should be captioned; or use a DVD player with a closed captioning decoder.
  • You may ask the student to arrange for an interpreter for meetings during office hours.
  • Advance notice should be given for field trips and outside activities so that the student may request an interpreter in a timely fashion.
  • If a course requires frequent use of a textbook during class time, DSS or the instructor may provide a desk copy to the interpreter.
  • Bound by a professional code of ethics, interpreters are hired by the University to interpret what occurs in the classroom.  Interpreters are not permitted to join in conversations, voice personal opinions, or serve as general classroom aides.  Do not make comments to an interpreter that are not intended to be interpreted to the deaf student.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are neurologically based and may interfere with the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical skills. They affect the manner in which individuals with average or above average intellectual abilities process and/or express information. A learning disability may be characterized by a marked discrepancy between intellectual potential and academic achievement resulting from difficulties with processing information. The effects may change depending upon the learning demands and environments and may manifest in a single academic area or affect performance across a variety of subject areas and disciplines. The impact of learning disabilities can be decreased by remediation, instructional interventions and the use of compensatory strategies.

The following terms are sometimes used to describe
specific learning disabilities:
• Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, decoding, spelling, writing and listening. These difficulties typically result from deficits in understanding, remembering and working with letter sounds (phonological awareness). Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede vocabulary and background knowledge.
• Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects the written formation of letters or words. Students with
dysgraphia have difficulty with handwriting, copying and note-taking.
• Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects the student’s ability to solve arithmetic problems and
grasp math concepts. Students with dyscalculia can have difficulty with both simple and complex math
functions and problem solving.

Difficulties may be seen in one or more of the following areas:
• Oral and/or written expression
• Reading comprehension and basic reading skills
• Problem solving
• Ability to listen selectively during lectures, resulting in problems with note-taking
• Mathematical calculation and reasoning
• Interpreting social cues
• Time management
• Memory, sequencing and organization
• Following directions and concentrating
• Visual-motor planning

Considerations and Instructional Strategies
• Use advance organizers when possible. Explain what you will be discussing, how it relates to
the previous lesson and why it is important at the beginning of each lecture to set the stage for learning.
• Consider posting class notes or an outline of key concepts on the web before class.
• Present material in a variety of ways, not just by lecture. Using visual aids, hands-on materials,
videotapes and computer-facilitated instruction, as well as lectures, will enhance learning opportunities for students by using a multi-sensory approach.
• Allow students to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways, not only by paper-and -pencil tests (e.g., presentations, papers, projects, etc.)

Medical Disabilities

Students may have chronic medical conditions that are not visible but pose serious problems in an educational setting. Medical disabilities include chronic illnesses such as asthma, allergies, arthritis, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, Lyme disease, migraines, cardiac conditions, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus and seizure disorders. Medical disabilities also include conditions that cause chronic pain such as repetitive stress injury, and post-surgery and back problems.

Symptoms of these medical conditions can be unpredictable and fluctuating. At times the medication
needed to control symptoms may impact academic performance rather than the medical condition itself. Students with chronic medical conditions may have limited energy and have difficulty sitting, standing or walking for prolonged periods of time. Medical conditions and the side effects of medication can cause fatigue, reduced stamina, inattentiveness and lack of ability to concentrate, as well as dizziness and disorientation.

Considerations and Instructional Strategies
• Since the condition of a student with a medical disability may fluctuate or deteriorate over time, the
need for and type of accommodations may vary.
• Fatigue may be a significant factor in the student’s ability to complete required tasks within regular
time limits.
• Some of these conditions may cause the student to exceed attendance policies and/or timelines for
completing assignments. A reasonable accommodation should reflect the nature of the class requirements and the arrangements initiated by the student for completing the assignments. If you need assistance or guidance in determining a reasonable standard of accommodation, consult
with a DSS specialist.
• A student may need to leave the classroom early and unexpectedly. However, the student should be
held accountable for missed instruction.
• DSS encourages students with seizure disorders to inform their instructors about what should be done if a seizure occurs during class. For further information about seizures, please see the Frequently Asked Questions section.
• If appropriate, ask the student if he or she will need assistance during an emergency evacuation and assist in making a plan if necessary.

Orthopedic/Mobility Disabilities

A variety of orthopedic or mobility disabilities result from congenital conditions, accidents or progressive neuromuscular diseases. These disabilities may include cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other severe physical injuries. Functional limitations and abilities vary widely; the same diagnosis can affect students very differently.
To assist with mobility, students may use canes, crutches, braces, prostheses, scooters or wheelchairs. Students with mobility disabilities may face difficulties getting to class on time due to symptoms associated with their disability, as well as transportation problems, inclement weather,
elevator or equipment breakdown.

Considerations and Instructional Strategies
• Flexibility may be necessary when applying attendance and promptness rules.
• When talking with a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter, try to converse at eye level; sit down if a chair is available.
• Make sure the classroom layout is accessible and free from obstructions.
• Special seating arrangements may be necessary to meet student needs, such as special chairs, lowered tables to write on, or spaces for wheelchairs or scooters.
• In laboratory courses students who use wheelchairs may need lower lab tables to accommodate their chairs and allow for the manipulation of tools and other equipment. Consult with the student for specific requirements, then with DSS if additional assistance or equipment is needed.
• If a student also has a communication disability, take time to understand the person. Repeat what you understand, and when you don’t understand, say so.
• Ask before giving assistance, and wait for a response. Listen to any instructions the student may
offer; the student generally knows the safest and most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand.
• Let the student set the pace when walking or talking.
• A wheelchair is part of a student’s personal space; do not touch or push the chair, unless asked.
• When field trips are a part of course requirements, make sure accessible transportation is available.
• Ask the student if he or she will need assistance during an emergency evacuation, and assist in making a plan if necessary.

Psychological/Psyhiatric Disability

Students with psychological or psychiatric disabilities are a growing population on college campuses. They comprise a diverse group with a wide range of conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder (manic-depression) and schizophrenia. These conditions are chronic rather than a response to a particular event. Major depression may be characterized by a depressed mood most of the day, a lack of pleasure in most activities, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. An individual with bipolar disorder may experience mood swings from mania on the one extreme to depression on the other. Anxiety disorders can result in an inability to concentrate and cause hyperventilation, a racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, panic and extreme fear. Schizophrenia can cause an individual to experience, at some point in the illness, delusions
and hallucinations.

Psychological disabilities are often not well understood in our society, and hence, these students have reason to be concerned about the reaction of others. With appropriate treatment, often consisting of a combination of medications, psychotherapy and support, the majority of psychological conditions are controlled. Disruptive behavior is not an attribute of most people with psychological disabilities.

Although every case is different, there are some commonalities in the academic experiences of students with psychological disabilities. These students report difficulties with focusing, concentrating and completing work on time. Reading, writing and math may require extra time and effort. Their ability to function may vary from day to day. In response to stress, students may experience an increase in symptoms. Medications to help alleviate symptoms may have side effects that can contribute to a student’s academic problems (e.g., drowsiness or headaches). Although many individuals with psychological disabilities are stabilized using medications and/or psychotherapy, their behavior and affect may still cycle.

Considerations and Instructional Strategies
• Students with psychological disabilities may not be comfortable disclosing the specifics of their disability.
• If a student does disclose, be willing to discuss how the disability affects him or her academically and what accommodations are needed.
• With treatment and support, many students with psychological disabilities are able to manage their
mental health and succeed academically.
• These students may sometimes have to miss class, or even leave the room in the middle of a class,
for disability-related reasons. The student will be responsible for the content of any lectures missed,
but will appreciate you helping fill in any gaps.
• If students seem to need counseling for disabilityrelated issues, encourage them to discuss their
problems with a DSS specialist. It may also be appropriate to suggest that the student make an
appointment to talk with a counselor at the Counseling Center if he or she is experiencing emotional difficulties.
• Sometimes students may need to check their perceptions of a situation or information you have presented in class to be sure they are on the right track.
• Sequential memory tasks, such as those involving math formulas and procedures and complex
instructions, may be more easily understood by breaking up the information into smaller steps.
• Drowsiness, fatigue, memory loss and decreased response time may result from prescription






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