How Can Teachers & Professors Help Students With Disabilities?

One of the things we often get asked after one of us, or a guest poster, makes a post about education and accessibility is to tell teachers and professors what they can do to ensure their classes are accessible. I understand and appreciate the motivation for this question, but the problem is that we can’t really answer it with any usefulness because it depends too much on the location you’re in, the access to resources you have, and the flexibility of your educational institution.

There are two things that teachers and professors can do to have their classroom be as accessible to students with disabilities as possible.

1. Learn what your educational institution can do for students with disabilities.

One of the things that student accessibility services often do is ask students “So, what accommodations do you need?” While this is helpful for getting a conversation started, it’s not necessarily in the best interest of the student to have them just come up with a few suggestions and then focus on those. Frankly, most students won’t be aware of what accommodations are available for them, which someone working in student accessibility services would be aware of. (To give an example, I only learned recently that the university that Don dropped out of due in part to difficulties in getting accommodations had the option of adjustable tables for students with disabilities. Having never encountered them before, he never thought to ask.)

As a teacher or professor, being aware yourself of exactly what accommodations are available, and what is required to get them, will allow you to work with your students to ensure that they get the best aid possible. It will also allow you to know what you can do for any students who may be temporarily disabled due to injury or accident.

Last year I was part of a review committee for the university, and learned that none of the professors I asked had any real idea of how they would assist a student with disabilities in getting accommodations, or how they’d need to adjust their academic advising for a student with disabilities. Being that there are whole buildings on my campus that are not accessible to someone who can’t walk up a flight of stairs, which actually prevents students with mobility-related disabilities from taking any classes at all in certain disciplines (a fact that always seems to surprise people when I point it out), this strikes me as something professors, especially those who do academic advising, would need to be aware of.

2. Let students know that you’re aware that accommodations may be necessary and that you’re open to discussing those issues. Let students know how they can contact you if they need accommodations – whether you prefer email or coming by during office hours, or both.

One of the things many universities require students to do is go up to strange professors that they’ve never met before and start discussing their disability. While on the surface this probably looks like “a reasonable amount of self-advocacy”, the students with disabilities I’ve talked to often describe this as the worst part of getting accommodations. They have no idea what they’re going to face. Will it be someone who grudgingly agrees to something, obviously irritated? Will it be someone who rolls their eyes and suddenly starts talking about how easy it is to fake being disabled? Will it be someone who gives them a little “Everyone’s a bit disabled!” speech? Or will it be one of the many professors who are very accommodating and happy to make their class as accessible as possible?

(I assure you, there are many many professors who are happy to help! But, of course, the stories most passed along, and the ones that worry students with disabilities the most, are the ones where something terrible happens.)

Having this conversation also gives you the chance to let any students with disabilities know that you don’t know everything, and that you’re willing to learn what you can do to best assist them.

I believe that a lot of professors and teachers, just like a lot of the staff that works with students with disabilities, really want what’s best for their students, and want them to be able to do well in school. I know that a lot of times there’s only so much they can do, due to lack of funding or lack of assistance from other people in an educational institution. Knowing what you can do can be endlessly helpful to assisting students with disabilities in your classroom.

16 Comments

  1. Let students know how they can contact you if they need accommodations – whether you prefer email or coming by during office hours, or both.

    If I’d known I could’ve contacted profs by e-mail rather than having to tell them after the first class period, I might’ve actually contacted more of them!

    Seriously, the people who make the rules seem to forget that some neuro-psych disabilities have social anxiety as a component.

  2. Also, I wish that this WordPress installation didn’t strip out <q></q> tags. I always get in trouble for using proper semantic HTML, it seems. ^_^

  3. Thank you for this. I can’t even tell you how much easier it makes my life to just have a professor say, “Hey, I realize some of you may have disabilities and need accommodations. That’s totally fine, please talk to me.” It alleviates SO much anxiety for me knowing that s/he’s not going to be an asshole about things. I am so used to fighting that it’s just a total relief to a hear a few encouraging words from someone in a position of power.

  4. great post, Anna! thanks for pulling this together.

  5. Thank you for your help with it, abby jean. I’ve gotten so used to being the Very Loud Person talking about disability that it didn’t occur to me to suggest profs gently remind students that they can be approached about it until you mentioned it to me.

  6. Another tip, from personal experience: If you’re a prof, don’t say one thing and then do another when it comes to accommodations or treating your students with disabilities fairly. Getting things in writing is a good step to combat this.

  7. I like the suggestions so far. Even if professors have no specific knowledge of acommodations for specific disabiliites, making a verbal statement in class and/or a written statement on a syllabus or course website that they are aware some students may require acommodations and are approachable for discussion would go a long way.

    Some of my personal experiences are the converse of what is described in Thing 1. I have approached professors or acommodations coordinators or administrators knowing exactly what sort of acommodations I needed, only to be told those were not permitted or not available. For example, I asked for access to a lecture hall through the accessible door, only to be told it was required to be locked at all times even though the inaccessible door was unlocked at all times. I asked permission to use computers which already existed to type things which were normally handwritten and was told this was not permitted. I asked about using alternate equipment for performing medical procedures during examination situations and was told the only testing acommodations permitted were for learning disabilities, not physical disabilities. They would have gladly (well maybe not gladly) given me extra testing time in a separate exam room, but could not understand my request to have lecture handouts placed in a location where I could reach them without climbing stairs. Advising students as to available acommodations is a useful thing, but it should be the opening of a conversation, not a list of the only possible permitted acommodations.

  8. “If you have any kind of disability that might impair your learning experience in this class, including testing anxiety, please speak to me privately or send me an email. If I am able to accommodate you I will and if your accommodations are something that I can not provide by myself and you do not yet have the paperwork from the disability office I will do what I can to help you get the paperwork.”

    Seriously, that’s pretty much the best I can think of. It’s so much better than giving a speech where you dogmatically talk about the need for disability office approval and documentation — that shuts me down every time.

  9. Thanks for this post, and thanks for all the comments – here coming from the perspective of a disabled grad student who’s planning to become an academic and so might end up on the other side of this! Because I was only diagnosed when I’d already started I don’t have any real experience asking for accommodation from my lecturers and tutors (bar the speech disorder when it came to presentations but that was actually something they’d usually bring up on their own) and hadn’t thought about this. Definitely something to keep in mind… I am thinking that if I lecture I might slot it in as an “on a related note” after I explain about my speech disorder, in the hopes that knowing the lecturer identifies as disabled herself might make things easier on any students in the situation.

  10. I really wish I knew what accommodations were available at my university. I had an in-take appointment with Disability Services where they mentioned some of the generic services they offer such as automatically excused absences, note-taking if there are any volunteers in the classroom… but aside from those, I was just asked what I needed. And I don’t KNOW what I need because I’m new to being a disabled student, though not to being disabled, and I have no ideas what accommodations are available or what I may need in an academic setting.

    I got my doctor to request extra time on assignments and tests on the paperwork he had to fill out for them, but I have no idea how to actually access these services and I don’t have enough spoons to sacrifice my short break between classes to go queue in the Disability Services office, or to make a special 90 minute trip out to the university on a non-class-day to find out.

    It’s frustrating, and I dearly wish some of my professors would acknowledge that there may be some accommodations they could handle themselves and that they’d be open to such a discussion.

  11. I’m teaching at the university level now, and I’ve been concerned that, at some point, an accomodation that I need will conflict with one that a student needs. This has happened at least once already — a hard-of-hearing student who needed me to face a certain direction while speaking, and facing that direction made it nearly impossible for me to speak while also pointing at things on the board without making a mess of my shoulders, but I sort of figured it out. And right now, the only accomodation that I need is that my classes need to be close together, because I can’t walk between buildings in the 15 minutes between classes, but I know that it’s possible that, at some point, I might have to switch from teaching on the chalkboard to teaching on an overhead projector because the chalkboard requires a lot of standing and walking. I know there are some people who have light sensitivities that would make it difficult for them to learn from an overhead projector class, and I’m really not sure what the solution would be.

  12. In case anyone is interested, there’s the HEATH Resource Center on Post-Secondary Education for Individuals with Disabilities.

    http://www.heath.gwu.edu/

    I haven’t read their stuff in years, when it was called “The National Center on Post-….” so I don’t know if they are still just focused on info and resources in the US, or if now that they’re online, they’re more international. But I thought I’d throw that up there, fwiw.

  13. I’m a first time community college instructor, and the best advice I’ve received is to go beyond the disability resource center. So many of our students don’t have access to medical care, which means that their disability perhaps isn’t documented by a physician. This is definitely the case for students with learning disabilities or mental health issues. I give the speech and the note in my syllabus, and I also pay attention to my students’ well-being. Depression, social anxiety, and ADHD are so often not diagnosed, and it’s important for professors to realize that many of our students will not be eligible for the services at the disability services office without that official sheet from a doctor. Even if a student isn’t registered with the DRC, a professor should never dismiss a student’s disability-related request for accommodation.

  14. I’m looking for a good resource that explains accommodations, recommendations, and modifications for students functioning in the classroom with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Do you have any suggestions? I know there are many, but I need a good one!

    Thanks for your help!

  15. @Ruchama,

    If you switch to the overhead projector, is it possible to keep basic black text on white background, and have the notes for class available for print out? A lot of students appreciate the notes already written/printed for a lot of different reasons, some like to add in their own notes while still being able to have the original ‘idea’ so to speak, some lose focus during class, and even those who have a difficult time showing up still have access to the lecture. And the greatest thing about just having print-outs is that a student wouldn’t even have request accommodations for it, especially if they were for all the students.
    And I know in my school, with the lights in the classroom, different ones turn off and on, so you might be able to work out a seating and lighting arrangement that would be effective.

    In response to the article, I like it a lot. It is really easy to tell which professors are willing to be open to accommodations and helping the students succeed and which ones don’t care/are on a power trip/generally ableist all around. The problem (apart from the ableist teachers making the problems) is that you don’t know how ableist the prof is until you begin discussing your accommodations, even if they say they’re open about it in class.

  16. I had to give myself a crash course in disability rights, laws, etc. after having a terrible time trying to get accommodations. I suggest that if you have an invisible disability- pain, psychological, whatever- to never ever ever let your professors know what it is. A sympathetic professor can turn ugly if you don’t improve as fast as they think you should or if it lasts too long or whatever.

    A lot of DSS offices essentially hide possible accommodations. You have to do their job and find out all the possibilities for your condition. Then they can just turn around and say that they won’t do that, regardless of whether other schools- bigger schools, more prestigious schools, will do that.

    And, PLEASE, let everyone with a disability you know hear that they can make a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Call in the feds if they won’t leave the accessible door unlocked but the other one always is. Seriously. Disabled students usually don’t have the money to file a lawsuit, so OCR becomes your next best friend in the face of an obstructive DSS office.