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Tips for Positive Communication with Students with Disabilities

This information will not address every situation that may occur when working with students with disabilities, but rather suggest helpful ideas to communicate with students that will help everyone feel more comfortable. The rationale of the Americans with Disabilities Act is to create opportunities for inclusion through “equal access.” Keep in mind that students with disabilities are students first, the disability isjustone facet of a complex individual; the disability does not define the individual. At Linfield College, academic adjustments are coordinated through the office of Learning Support Services (LSS).

Visual Impairments

  • There are a broad variety of vision differences and even students with similar disabilities may require different accommodations (for example, not all blind students use Braille). Students may have low vision (corrected to large extent with glasses, monoculars and magnifying equipment), tunnel vision, peripheral vision, light/color sensitivity, color blindness, or have blindness in one or both eyes. Each situation is unique and each is supported with specific accommodations. Ask the student what assistance he/she finds most helpful.
  • Use a normal tone of voice and don’t be afraid to make comments like ” See you later” or “Have you read the text?”
  • When speaking with a student who has profound vision impairment, introduce yourself and anyone else present; in a group, speak directly toward the student and address him/her by name.
  • When walking with a visually impaired person, if requested, allow her/him to take your arm (usually just above the elbow) and walk at a normal pace. Be aware of overhanging obstructions (signs, tree limbs). If the student is using a cane, walk to the side in a manner least obstructing the cane use.
  • A guide dog is a trained “professional.” Do not pet or feed the dog while it is in harness and never without first asking permission of the handler.
  • When offering a seat, place the student’s hand on the back of the chair, allowing him/her to reference the seat.
  • If dining, quietly ask (at the time or before the meal) if the student would like for you to briefly review what food is where on the plate. Many visually impaired people use a clock face reference; for example, “peas at 2 o’clock, chicken breast at 6 and mashed potatoes at 10.” As you probably would with anyone, let the student know if there is spinach between her/his teeth, or gravy on his/her tie.
  • Remember that vision differences vary greatly. Don’t hesitate to ask the student what adaptations, if any, are needed. The student is the expert about his/her particular needs.

Common Classroom Accommodations

  • Early in the semester, discuss testing accommodations. LSS can arrange for a test reader and scribe if needed.
  • In the classroom, verbally describe any visual aids, diagrams, films or videos used. If appropriate and given enough “lead time,” LSS staff can produce a recording of syllabi, handouts, “overheads,” etc. LSS can also develop tactile maps and graphs. (These may also be useful for other students, especially tactile/kinesthetic learners!)
  • The student may request a peer note taker in class or wish to record lectures. Note taking services are arranged through LSS; however, your support in selecting, monitoring and communication regarding the note taker is very helpful.
  • Many visually impaired students listen to materials, which usually takes them longer than other students reading the same material. It’s very important to provide accurate reading assignments well in advance of the due dates.
  • Guide dogs are well-trained “professionals” and you should have no concerns about having them in your classroom. Guide dogs do, however, require some special considerations in labs and on some field trips.
  • There are many devices now available that assist students, including: tactile graphing calculators, auditory reading and dictation software programs, “talking” PDAs and watches” etc.

 Mobility Differences

  • The variety of mobility concerns (and the often related dexterity concerns) vary greatly and depending on the nature of the disability, the need for accommodation may fluctuate over time. (For example, a student with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia may have “flare ups” that necessitate different levels of accommodations.) Mobility concerns may appear obvious, signaled by the use of a cane, walker or wheelchair, or they may be subtler, as in requiring the use of an elevator, rather than taking the stairs.
    • Students with mobility concerns will ask for assistance when and/if it is needed. Students may need additional assistance in the event of an emergency.
    • Students using wheelchairs are “wheel chair users,” not “wheel chair bound;” this is a liberating tool used for enhanced mobility.
    • When possible, sit beside a student rather than towering above him/her. Leaning against a wheelchair may violate a student’s sense of personal space, just as leaning on someone’s shoulder would be uncomfortable for most students.

 Classroom Accommodations:

  • If the student using a wheelchair does not prefer to transfer to a desk or chair, it is important to make sure there is appropriate space for the chair (walker, scooter, crutches, etc.) Where seating is facing a staged area, as in an auditorium, sitting at the front may cause too much neck/back strain.
  • Lab stations usually need to be lowered and restructured. A lab partner may be very helpful, particularly if the student also has difficulty with dexterity. Sometimes ramping or special seating that moves up and down may be required.
  • Be realistic in seeking solutions. Students with mobility concerns may have difficulties with inclement weather, temporary obstructions or unusually crowded hallways, but if a student is repeatedly tardy or absent, discuss the situation and have the same expectations as you would for other students.

 Deaf/Hard of Hearing

  • There is a wide spectrum with regard to hearing loss. Some students may be profoundly deaf, while others may have partial hearing loss. Again, the student is the expert regarding his/her situation and needs.
  • Attract the attention of the student before speaking (a touch on the shoulder or a visual hand cue). Look directly at the student and do not chew gum, smoke or in other ways obscure your mouth. Be aware that facial hair may obscure speech reading. Even people with mild hearing loss may rely to some extent on lip-reading; however, even a proficient lip-reader will usually glean only about 30-40% of the information relayed orally.
  • Do not speak louder, unless requested to do so. Students who use hearing aids or FM systems may find the added amplification painful.
  • Don’t assume that all deaf students use sign language. Additionally, there are several forms of manual communication: cued speech, American Sign Language, straight English. Many deaf people view themselves as members of a cultural group and not “disabled” at all.

 Common Classroom Accommodations

  • Student should sit with an unobstructed view of the speaker.
  • If an interpreter is present, there should be a comfortable space between the speaker and the interpreter, with both clearly visible by the student. A list of specific technical terms and outline of each lecture should be provided to the interpreter before the beginning of each class. Speak to the student and not the interpreter (note taker, etc.).
  • If spoken English is not the student’s first or primary language, it may be necessary to rephrase information. As with other nonnative speakers, deaf/hard of hearing students may smile and nod…and may not be understanding what you are trying to convey. As with all students, it is useful to have them repeat back to you key elements of the lecture or conversation.
  • Students with hearing loss may need more support in written, academic English. Be prepared to make suggestions and to refer students to other campus resources, such as the Writing Center. 
  • During discussions, repeat or rephrase questions/comments from others not in direct line of sight. This is especially important if you are wearing a microphone
  • Do not make comments while writing on the board with your back to the class. Do not stand in front of a window or strong light while lecturing, as this may obscure or distort your face.
  • Use visual media (e.g. “overheads”) as much as possible. (These are often helpful to students with other disabilities and varied learning styles).
  • Captioned films, slides and videotapes are extremely helpful and should be used whenever possible. Transcriptions, especially if provided ahead of time are also useful.
  • Some students have difficulty attending to one voice in a crowded, noisy area; try to move away from such areas when speaking to students who are deaf/hard of hearing.

 Students with Speech Impairments

  • Be patient and listen attentively. Do not complete the student’s sentence for him/her.
  • If you do not understand what the student is saying, don’t pretend you do. Ask the student to repeat the information.
  • Encourage participation in discussion, but do not require it. It may take a little extra time for a student with a speech impairment to participate, so plan accordingly. When appropriate, encourage other students to communicate directly with the student.
  • If a student cannot participate orally, allow the student to use a word processor, sign board or interpreter in class.
  • As with other impairments, the student knows the best accommodation for his/her challenges. Ask him/her what works.

 Learning Disabilities

  • By far, the largest group of students with “disabilities” is considered “learning disabled.” Most learning disabilities fall within a continuum; although most students are highly intelligent, some of their work may not fully reflect their abilities.
  • Most students with learning disabilities have experienced significant frustrations within academic environments, but so too have many students proven quite adapt at developing creative coping strategies. It is important to discuss the student’s strengths and weaknesses and to understand what strategies have been successful for the student in the past. A little flexibility on your part in teaching methods and evaluation formats may provide great benefits for these students.

Common Classroom Accommodations

  • Extended time on tests and reduced-distracted testing environment are very common accommodations for many students with learning disabilities and can be arranged through LSS.
  • Students may be more successful using peer note taking services, and may benefit from print copies of “overheads” or even lecture notes and/or outlines.
  • Students who struggle with reading, grammar or spelling (e.g. dyslexics) may benefit from using readers and/or scribes during exams. They may also benefit from alternative text formats (often through computer screen reader/writer programs) and occasionally may need additional time to read or complete assignments.
  • For students who struggle particularly with time management and organization, concise syllabi and limited changes in assignments are very beneficial. It is also important to write any changes on the board (or email), as well as discussing them in class. Be aware that in the bustle of changing classes, many students do not “hear” last minute instructions or information.
  • Many students with learning disabilities benefit from “academic coaching”, tutoring, peer mentoring and regular meetings with professors. “Connecting” in this way reinforces new information, supports routine and motivation, as well as affords opportunities to clarify information and assignments. Likewise, helping students develop study groups, utilize the Writing Center and other resources supports less traditional learning styles.

 Mental Health Issues:

  • Most students with mental health issues (sometimes referred to as psychiatric disabilities) are involved in counseling therapy and may also be using medications to manage their symptoms. Some symptoms of psychiatric disabilities emerge when students are in their late teens or early twenties (so this may be a relatively new experience for them), while others may have been diagnosed earlier in life.
  • Some students lack confidence in their abilities and may need encouragement to excel academically. Many are very cautious about divulging mental health concerns. More than any other “disability”, mental health issues carry the greatest history of stigma. Maintaining confidentiality and allowing the student to take some time to bring you into his/her confidence is very helpful.
  • If you are not familiar with the particular issue, wish more information or want to discuss how best to meet the student’s needs, consult first with the student and then seek assistance from the Counseling Center. Although counselors generally cannot discuss information concerning specific individuals without the student’s written consent, they can help you learn more about the specific health concern and strategize how best to support the student.
  • Depression is the most common mental health concern on college campuses and because you meet with students on a near daily basis, you can play a key role in understanding and recognizing if/when a student is struggling. Frequent absences, poor self-care, apathy and even angry outbursts can be symptomatic and by discussing your observations with the student and involving the Counseling Center, you are providing valuable support.

 Common Classroom Accommodations

  • Many, but not all, students with mental health issues require extended time on tests and/or a quiet testing environment. Arrangements for these can be made through LSS.
  • Occasional absences may occur due to medication adjustments or “bad days” (think of a student with a bad back, would you excuse him/her for a day?) Repeated absences need to be addressed. Perhaps the student needs to lighten their course load, or consider an Incomplete. Again, by working with the student, LSS and the Counseling Center, a resolution to such concerns should be attainable.
  • Some students, especially those with high anxiety or Asperger’s Syndrome are reluctant to participate in class discussions and may be very uncomfortable giving presentations. Consider allowing a student to present or discuss material with you privately. Other creative alternatives include: videotaping presentations, which allow for “re-dos” and often lessens the “stage fright;” written presentations and presenting in a small group. This strategy may also be helpful for students with speech impairments.

 Other Medical Concerns

  • Students with other medical needs may also require accommodations and again, the student is your primary source of information, but other professionals, such as the Student Health Center, the Counseling Center and LSS may be able to provide additional information.
  • Students with diabetes (and hypoglycemia) may need to be particularly careful of their diet and medication, especially during periods of stress such at the start of the semester and during exams. They may also miss class occasionally if there are problems with maintaining their blood sugar levels. It is helpful for you to understand the indicators preceding “diabetic shock” or plummeting blood sugar and support the student should this occur in class.
  • Students with epilepsy or other seizure-inducing conditions (especially those resulting in loss of consciousness) should discuss their situation with you, so that if a seizure occurs in class, you’ll know how to respond appropriately. Most students subject to seizures prefer testing in a separate, non-distracting environment, where they are less likely to disrupt others (and become embarrassed) should a seizure occur.
  • Students with asthma and other respiratory diseases may be very sensitive to certain odors (especially perfumes and cleaning agents) or other “triggers” and should discuss these concerns with you. Additionally, sudden or extreme weather conditions may necessitate a student to be absent; again, the student should let you know of these concerns.
  • Rarely, a class may need to relocate if a student has severe chemical sensitivities, for example, if a student is “allergic” to the adhesive used with new carpets or if the student is sensitive to petrochemicals and the ventilation for the class is high in diesel fumes from idling delivery trucks.
  • Some students are very sensitive to fluorescent lights and require natural or alternative lighting. Alternatively, some students suffer severe migraine headaches or lupus-related symptoms when subjected to too much sunlight and therefore must be careful during fieldtrips and where class seating is in direct sunlight from windows.
  • Students with Immune Deficiency Syndrome(s) should be working with the Student Health Center. These students may experience absences due to ill health or possibly during peak outbreaks of flu, etc. Be understanding in establishing guidelines for make-up work and consider allowing a student to work (briefly) from home. When possible, discuss your expectations with the student before such absences occur.

 Multiple Disabilities, Co-Morbidity

  • Some students are affected with more than one disability. For example, a student may be diagnosed with ADD and dyslexia. This is fairly common and the best practice is to try to accommodate both concerns.
  • Occasionally, students are formally diagnosed with a disability during their early school years and a second, less severe disability becomes more apparent when the student is more rigorously challenged in the college setting. Some students go all the way through school (K-12), perhaps a little slower to conceptualize key information or thinking they’re just not smart, but performing at an “average” level. When they enter college, away from the support of family and friends, they may have greater struggles and eventually may seek testing, especially for learning disabilities. I know an adult (a college professor) who was not documented as having “severe dyslexia” until graduate school; she just knew that she always had to work harder than other students. 

 This is not meant as a catalog of all disabilities and academic adjustments, but rather a beginning point for understanding and dialog.