Academic Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

[From the hard copy book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Linking to this book chapter from other websites is permissible. However, the contents of this chapter may not be copied, printed, or distributed in hard copy form without permission.]

Students who have a disability, particularly a learning disability, are a rapidly growing population on college campuses. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate figures, between 3 and 10 percent of college students report having physical or learning disabilities that require compensatory classroom teaching accommodations (City University of New York Committee for the Disabled, 1988; Project EASI, 1991; Smith, 1989). Such accommodations are neither difficult to provide nor distracting to the rest of the class. In fact, many of these accommodations may make learning easier for all your students.

  General Strategies

Ask your students to clarify any special needs. At the beginning of each semester, you might make a general announcement: “Any student who feels that he or she may need accommodations for any sort of physical or learning disability, please speak to me after class, make an appointment to see me, or see me during my office hours.” When you meet with a student, explain the course requirements and ask what classroom modifications would aid the student. Students are usually their own best advocates, and they know the techniques and adaptations that best suit their needs.

Remember that disabled students are students first, disabled second. It is natural for able-bodied people to feel hesitant or uneasy when first meeting people who are disabled. But disabled people are neither more or less emotionally fragile than able-bodied people. Thus you needn’t worry about hurting the feelings of a student who is blind by mentioning the word see. Students who are blind “see” ideas or concepts, just as students who are deaf “hear” what someone means and wheelchair users “walk” to class. Offer physical assistance only if a student requests help or if the need is immediately obviously.

Be flexible about attendance and promptness. Students who use wheelchairs may encounter physical barriers in getting to class on time (broken elevators, late van transportation). Other students may sometimes feel fatigued or have difficulty concentrating as a result of their disability or their medication. Try to distinguish students’ physical problems from apathetic behavior. (Source: City University of New York Committee for the Disabled, 1988)

Be sensitive to “nonvisible” or “hidden” disabilities. Three principal types of disabilities may not be immediately visible:

  • Learning disabilities hinder students of average or above-average intelligence from easily and dependably processing various types of information. Dyslexic students, for example, have a perceptual deficit that prevents them from unerringly interpreting sequences of letters or numbers. It is important to realize that learning disabilities are not a reflection of a student’s intelligence, physical or emotional health, or cultural or socioeconomic background. In general, using a variety of instructional modes enhances learning for such students, as it does for all students, by allowing them to master material that may be inaccessible in one particular mode. Most college students will know which forms or modalities of learning work best for them. (Sources: City University of New York Committee for the Disabled, 1988; Smith, n.d )
  • Mild to moderate sensory deficits (low-level vision, slight hearing impairment) should be accommodated by appropriate seating and room lighting.
  • Chronic disabilities (diabetes, seizure disorders, cardiac or respiratory conditions, lupus, cancer, AIDS) may interfere with stamina, attention span, and alertness. The attendance and performance of affected students may be erratic, and they may need flexibility in the scheduling of assignments.

Check with your campus disabled students program for advice and guidance. Staff members can answer questions and provide helpful information about disabilities and academic accommodations.

  Physical Access

Ensure classroom access. Most buildings on your campus should have entrances that are accessible to students who use mobility aids (wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers). Individual classrooms and laboratories may differ in their accessibility. Contact your room scheduling office for assistance in obtaining an accessible classroom.

Observe seating needs. Students who use canes, crutches, or walkers appreciate having a chair or desk that is close to the door. Access to these seats should be flat: no steps, no uneven surfaces. Wheelchair users need flat or ramped access, and classroom tables or desks must have enough clearance for them to get their legs underneath. Lab tables and computer consoles should be set up so that wheelchair users can comfortably reach the equipment.

Make seating available for students’ in-class aides. Students who are disabled usually locate and hire their own aides (note takers, lab assistants, readers), often through referrals from the campus disabled students program. You can help, at times, by announcing to your class that a note taker is needed or by referring qualified tutors and lab assistants to students who are disabled. The student and aide will reach their own arrangements about the type of help needed.

Ensure access to out-of-class activities. Be sensitive to questions of access when planning field trips, assigning lab and computer work, and recommending visits to museums, attendance at off-campus lectures and dramatic presentations, and the like.

  Lecture and Laboratory Course

Follow good teaching practices. Many techniques that will help students who have sensory or learning disabilities will also benefit all the students in your class. For example:

  • Open each session with a brief review of the previous session’s material and an outline of that day’s topic. Conclude each session with a summary of key points.
  • Emphasize new or technical vocabulary by presenting it visually (on the chalkboard, an overhead slide, or a handout) as well as orally.
  • Describe all visual examples (board work, demonstrations, props). As you work at the board, instead of saying, “Adding this here and dividing by that gives us this,” narrate what you are doing: “Adding all scores and dividing by the number of scores, gives us the mean.”
  • Give students opportunities for questions, clarification, and review.

(Sources: McGuire and O’Donnell, 1989; Smith, n.d.; Wren and Segal, 1985)

Be aware of students’ cassette recorders. Students who cannot take notes in class may routinely record lectures. For their benefit, speak clearly and position yourself close enough to the microphone. Explain what you are writing on the board or what you are demonstrating. Students with hearing disabilities may ask you to wear a lapel microphone, linked to a headset that amplifies your voice.

Face the class when you are speaking. Deaf or hearing-disabled students who read lips cannot follow the lecture or conversation when your back or head is turned. If you are writing on the board or narrating a desktop demonstration, try to avoid talking when facing the board or the desktop. Remember that, at best, people who are deaf can read only 30 to 40 percent of spoken English by watching the speaker’s lips. Augment their understanding by using facial expressions, gestures, and body language. (Sources: Fisher, 1985; Smith, n. d.)

Hand out written lists of technical terms for students who are deaf or hearing-disabled. Unfamiliar words are difficult to speech read and interpret. If possible, supply a list of these words or terms in advance to the student and interpreter. (Source: Smith, n.d.)

Make reading lists available in advance. Students who rely on readers or need Braille, large-print, and tape-recorded books will appreciate as much notice as possible. By midsemester, many students with disabilities try to obtain the reading lists for the courses they anticipate taking the following term.

  Class Participation

Arrange for classroom participation or an alternative activity. Students who cannot raise their hand to answer or ask questions may feel isolated or ignored in class. During your first private meeting with such a student, ask how he or she wishes to be recognized in the classroom. Some students will want to be called on; others may prefer to meet periodically with you before or after class to ask questions about course content.

In class discussion and conversation directly address the student, not the student’s aide or interpreter. In talking to deaf or hearing-disabled students, acknowledge the interpreter’s presence but look at and address the student. When talking to a student in a wheelchair for more than a minute or two, it is best to sit down so that you can talk at eye level. (Source: Smith, n.d. )

Repeat comments or questions from participants as necessary and, as needed, identify the person who is speaking. When a student is speaking out of the range of vision of a deaf or hearing-disabled student, repeat the question or comment and indicate who is speaking (by motioning) so the student can follow the discussion. To accommodate students with visual disabilities, identify by name the student who is speaking or identify the person to whom you are speaking. (Source: Smith, n.d.)

Listen attentively when a student with a speech disability is speaking. Do not finish a student’s sentences or interrupt. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the student to respond. (Source: National Center for Access Unlimited, 1992)

Give options for oral presentations, if needed. Oral presentations may pose difficulties for students who have speech disabilities. Students who wish to give their presentation without assistance should be encouraged to do so. But some students will want to give the presentation with the help of an interpreter, and others may want to write out their presentation and ask an interpreter or another student to read it to the class.

  Written Materials and Exams

Ensure that students get the academic help they need to succeed in your class. Although a student may have an in-class aide (a note taker, sign- language interpreter, amanuensis), these aides are not academic tutors. Students with learning disabilities can often benefit from ongoing tutorial assistance .

Make the computer disks available to students. If you prepare your syllabus, assignments, or handouts on a computer, give copies of the disk to students who might need them. Students who are blind or partially sighted can take the disk to an adaptive computer that will prepare copy in Braille. If your campus is networked, you may be able to send the material through electronic mail, eliminating the need for disks. Use a computer or photocopying enlarger to prepare large-type hard copy versions of your reading lists and other handouts for students who are partially sighted.

As appropriate, encourage students to use computers. Students with learning disabilities and students with reduced manual dexterity can benefit from drafting and revising their papers on a computer. Students with dyslexia and similar information-processing disabilities should be encouraged to use computers that have spell-checking features or to work with a proofreader or editor during the preparation of their final copy. Students who are partially sighted can use large point sizes on their computer screen and then reformat the text when they print out their papers.

Provide appropriate test-taking conditions. Federal law mandates academic accommodations. Some students with physical or learning disabilities may need one or more of the following kinds of accommodations to complete their exams:

  • An in-class aide to read the test orally or to take down the student’s dictated answers to exam questions
  • A separate room that provides better lighting or fewer distractions or that houses special equipment (computer console, video magnifier, text-to-speech converter)
  • An extended exam period to accommodate a student’s slower writing speed or need to dictate answers to an aide or to equalize a student’s reduced information-processing speed
  • Option of substituting an oral exam for a written exam, or a written exam for an oral exam, or a multiple-choice exam for an essay exam
  • Option of having exam questions presented in written or oral form

You and the student should agree early on how the student’s progress in the course will be evaluated.

  Assistive Instructional Technology

Find out what technological aids your institution makes available for students with disabilities. For example, some campuses have talking calculators, speech-activated computers, Braille workstations, and reading machines for use by students who are blind or visually disabled. One university has experimented with “stenocaptioning,” a stenography machine hooked up to a computer for helping students with hearing disabilities read from the computer as the lecturer speaks (“New Technology Boosts Hearing- lmpaired Students,” 1992).

Make certain that adaptive computer equipment is available for students with disabilities. Check with your disabled students program or your computer center for information and advice. Adaptive technologies for people with mobility disabilities include modifications of keyboards, mouthsticks and headwands for striking keys, and floppy disk guides that make it easier to handle disks. For students with visual disabilities, equipment includes speech synthesizers, Braille or large-print output devices, and screen-reading programs. Students with learning disabilities can benefit from special software. Berliss (1991) offers advice and information for making computer laboratories and equipment accessible. (Source: Project EASI, 1991)

If you assign films or videos, make sure they are close captioned. Check with your media center about the Captioned Films Program, which distributes captioned theatrical, short subject, documentary, and educational films. (Source: Smith, n.d.)


Berliss, J. R. “Checklists for Implementing Accessibility in Computer Laboratories at Colleges and Universities.” Madison: Trace Research and Development Center, University of Wisconsin, 1991.

City University of New York Committee for the Disabled. Reasonable Accommodations: A Faculty Guide to Teaching College Students with Disabilities. New York: Professional Staff Congress/City University of New York, 1988. (Available from Professional Staff Congress/City University of New York, 25 West 43rd St., New York, N.Y.)

Fisher, M. (ed.). Teaching at Stanford. Stanford, Calif.: Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University, 1985.

McGuire, J. M., and O’Donnell, J. M. “Helping Learning Disabled Students to Achieve: Collaboration Between Faculty and Support Services.” College Teaching, 1989, 37(1), 29-32.

National Center for Access Unlimited. “Ten Commandments for Commu- nicating with People with Disabilities.” In B. P. Noble, “When Businesses Need Not Fret.” New York Times, June 7, 1992, p. F25.

“New Technology Boosts Hearing-lmpaired Students.” National On-Campus Report, 1992, 20(10), 3.

Project EASI (Equal Access to Software for Instruction). Computers and Students with Disabilities: New Challenges for Higher Education. (2nd ed. ) Washington, D.C. EDUCOM, 1991.

Smith, D. G. The Challenge of Diversity: Involvement or Alienation in the Academy? Report No. 5. Washington, D.C.: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, 1989.

Smith, L. M. The College Student with a Disability: A Faculty Handbook. Sacramento: Health and Welfare Agency, California Employment Development Department, n.d.

Wren, C., and Segal, L. College Students with Learning Disabilities: A Student Perspective. Chicago: Project Learning Strategies, DePaul University, 1985 .