Teaching students with disabilities

On syllabi, college teachers often include a paragraph saying that they will make accommodations for students who have registered with the institution’s office of disabilities services and have an official accommodation. I have had some students with disabilities who have registered and some who have not registered, I’ve had students who have registered and taken advantage of the opportunities afforded them and students who have registered and chosen not to take advantage of the opportunities and available accommodations. Since there has been this broad range of students, I think it only makes sense to think about how to truly accommodate all students with disabilities–and really, we all have a disability of some sort, whether diagnosed or not, whether admitted or not, whether temporary or not–rather than relying solely on an office of disabilities services. Here are some suggestions on how to augment the help from such an office or aide:

  • Be understanding and trust students. Some disabilities are temporary (like grief and depression) and a kind teacher can go a long way to help the student. Others are permanent and some could require flexible, quick adjustments. The more flexible you can be, the easier things will be for students.
  • Ask before you help.  Don’t just assume some one needs help. Similarly, touching someone or their wheelchair to help them navigate may be offensive, unhelpful, and an invasion of their personal space.
  • Don’t make decisions for people with disabilities if something (especially an accommodation) effects them. Make sure they can offer input because they know their abilities and schedule better than you do.
  • Speak loudly and clearly. If there is a sign language interpreter involved, speak to the student, not to the student’s interpreter.
  • Make sure the writing on the chalkboard, PowerPoint slides, and handouts are large and clear enough that everyone in the classroom can see and read them. Depending on the room, a size 30 font is often safe and make sure writing is not at the bottom of the slide or board.
  • Provide handouts to help students spell Classical names and terms and to follow along with lectures. For some Latin classes, I have provided a handout with fill-in-the-blank lecture notes and empty charts to help students follow the introduction of material better, avoid wasting time by writing many examples on the chalkboard, and make sure I cover everything in class. Similarly, in cultural classes, I have always made sure that important place names or names of important historical figures or concepts are on a handout or PowerPoint slide so students can spell these words.
  • Do not assume someone has a disability. Get the facts. On the first day of class, I distribute a survey that includes the question “What else should I know?” and I say this includes disabilities, allergies, etc.
  • If a student is in a wheelchair, make sure their path is clear and you place handouts or supplies within their reach.
  • If someone has a hearing or sight disability, be willing to (and offer to) read signs, writing on the board, etc again. Similarly, it may be helpful to always read the Latin sentence you’re translating in class (see my post on Spoken Latin) or the words on the board. Not only does this provide an oral reinforcement of the Latin, but it will also teach students how to pronounce possibly confusing names, like Cleisthenes or Thucydides or Publius Ventidius Bassus. Also, writing Latin down rather than only speaking some examples will help reinforce the example for all students.
  • Make eye contact and don’t obscure your face. This may help people who are hard of hearing understand you better, and it will let you project your voice more.
  • Limit distractions, but don’t force students to concentrate on the exact same task for long periods of time. It helps to remember that attention spans are only about 10-15 min on a good day for an undistracted adult.
  • If a student has a speech impediment, be patient and give them your full attention. Do not finish their sentences and ask for clarification if you do not understand them. You may also want to ask them to write their thought down if you still do not understand them.
  • If a student has Tourette Syndrome and begins uncontrollably gesturing or vocalizing, wait for them to finish and then continue speaking.
  • If a student has a seizure, you cannot do anything to stop it.  Make sure the area around the student is clear so that they are not injured during the seizure. After the seizure, allow the student privacy to collect themselves.
  • You will only know for sure if a student has a mental illness when they tell you. Treat the student as an individual and respectfully. Talk with the student about how to best accommodate them and their illness.
  • If a student has a learning disability, ask them how to best relay information to them, and repeat instructions (especially when asked).
  • Students with brain injuries may have trouble understanding things and organizing thoughts. Have patience, limit distractions, and offer help or other resources (like a tutor or drills) outside of class.
  • See my recent post about teaching students with dyslexia.

Many of these suggestions come from Judy Cohen, Disability Etiquette, 2003, a booklet published by the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.


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