Tips for Supporting Students with Specific Disabilities

Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Often called “hidden disabilities”, students with Learning Disabilities (LDs) and/or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) make up the majority of students registered with ODS. Examples of LDs include Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Nonverbal Learning Disorders. Students are often diagnosed after a battery of testing with results that indicate lack of achievement at age and ability level and a discrepancy between achievement and intelligence. 

Examples of Challenges faced by these students are:

* Inability to change from one task to another

* Difficulty scheduling time to complete short and long-term assignments

* Difficulty completing tests without additional time

* Difficulty following directions

* Difficulty concentrating in lectures

* Problems with grammar

* Impulsiveness

* Difficulty delaying resolution to a problem 

* Poor self-esteem 

* Difficulty taking notes

* Slow reading rate

* Poor comprehension and retention of material read

* Difficulty with basic math operations

* Difficulty with reasoning 

When preparing your lectures or presenting the materials, consider the following:

  • Link previous lecture to current lecture

  • Outline main points in presentation slides 

  • State class objectives

  • Write out key terms in presentation slides

  • Leave presentation slides up longer than you think necessary for you to copy

  • Make lectures interactive 

  • Make lecture notes available on the internet 

  • Maintain student attention by varying delivery approach

  • Summarize or draw conclusions at the end of the lecture

Students with Visual Impairments

 There are two categories of visual disabilities: blindness and low vision. Between 70 and 80 percent of all persons in the United States identified as “legally blind” actually have some measurable vision. A person who is blind usually has adapted in individual ways to compensate for the lack of vision. Low vision can vary greatly due to individual situations. To be diagnosed with a visual disability, visual acuity has to be 20/70 or less in the better eye after the best possible correction.

Academic challenges can be the result of constricted peripheral vision, progressive loss of vision, and fluctuation of visual acuity and may impact:

* Mobility around campus and in the classroom 

* Ability to take notes in class 

* Ability to see classroom visual aids, writing on chalkboard, etc.

* Reading

* Obtaining textbooks in an alternative format in a timely manner (audio, large print, Braille)

When working with a student with a visual impairment, consider the following:

  • Always use a visually impaired student’s first name when addressing them. This way they will know you are talking to them and not someone else. Prompt fellow students to do the same because this fosters connection in the classroom.

  • When writing on the board, always verbalize what you are writing so the student has access to that information and can follow along. Similarly, when discussing presentation slides, discuss what is on each slide.

  • Use positional and directional concepts like above/under, on top, behind/in front of, left/right etc. and use descriptive sentences like, “The table is next to the door” instead of “The table is over there.” Avoid words and phrases like “here,” “there,” “over here,” “over there,” and gestures that provide direction, i.e. pointing to a location without verbalizing what is being pointed to because visually impaired students cannot see that.

Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Hearing impairment is a broad term that refers to hearing losses of varying degrees from hard-of-hearing to total deafness. The major challenge facing students with hearing impairments is communication. Hearing-impaired students vary widely in their communication skills.

Most students with hearing impairments can and do speak. Most deaf students have normal speech organs and have learned to use them through speech therapy. Some deaf students cannot monitor or automatically control the tone and volume of their speech, so their speech may be initially difficult to understand. Understanding improves as one becomes more familiar with the deaf student’s speech pattern.

Examples of disability related challenges include:

* Listening to and understanding lecture information

* Taking notes in class

* Working effectively in group projects or class discussions

When working with a student with a hearing impairment, consider the following:

  • If there is a sign language interpreter, look at the deaf student when speaking to them, not the interpreter. The interpreter will sign whatever you say and voice whatever the student signs. Speak at a normal rate. The interpreter will ask you to slow down or repeat if the delivery is too fast. 

  • To assist students who lipread, those who speak in the class should face the class as much as possible and speak clearly and audibly. Avoid covering your mouth or standing with a light source behind you when speaking. Refrain from speaking while writing on a chalkboard or while turned away from the student.  

  • In a class discussion, ensure that one person is speaking at a time. Point to the speaker or have speakers raise their hands. It may be necessary to repeat questions or comments so the student can keep up with the discussion. 

  • Some hearing-impaired students will ask you to wear an FM system, which is a sound amplification device that connects to cochlear implants or hearing aids. Since most FM systems are worn around-the-neck or clip on the front of the shirt, be sure to leave any dangling, loose jewelry at home, as wearing it will hit up against the microphone. Also refrain from chewing gum or eating while wearing the FM system. Your student will be able to hear every sound close to the mic, and it can become distracting. 

  • The use of visual aids (chalkboards, powerpoints, diagrams, charts, etc.) greatly assists students with hearing impairments. Many students with hearing loss need to receive assignments in written form in order to ensure proper understanding of the requirements.

Students with Chronic Illness

Chronic illnesses include conditions affecting one or more of the body’s functions. These conditions can include, but are not limited to, the respiratory, immunological, neurological and circulatory systems. There can be several different impairments and they can vary significantly in their effects and symptoms. In general, these conditions can vary in severity and length of time, and can be very unstable.

Examples of chronic medical conditions include:

* Cancer 

* Chemical dependency 

* Chronic fatigue syndrome

*Chronic Migraine

* Diabetes

* Epilepsy/seizure disorder

* Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

* Multiple chemical sensitivities

* Multiple sclerosis

* Muscular dystrophy

* Post Concussion Syndrome

* Renal disease/failure

Academic difficulties can include:

  • Mobility around campus and in the classroom 

  • Taking notes in class 

  • Concentration/attention 

  • Time management

  • Anxiety 

When working with a student with chronic illness, consider the following:

Students with some chronic illness may become dizzy and disoriented or may lack physical stamina. As a result, they may be unable to quickly get from one location on campus to another, or may not be able to attend class on days when symptoms are especially bad. For these reasons, flexibility with class attendance policies is needed, to the greatest extent possible.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are lifelong neurodevelopmental disorders that are characterized by impairments in verbal and/or nonverbal communication. Increasing numbers of students with High-Functioning Autism (or Asperger Syndrome) are entering college. Many have strong academic skills and may have just a few characteristics of the condition. Some of the symptoms of ASD might make it appear as if a student is being rude or is uninterested in your class. The student may in fact be highly engaged, but due to difficulties in social communication, his or her behavior might come across as unusual.

Not all students are comfortable sharing that they have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. However, we find that openness often helps faculty better understand a student’s behavior, and therefore encourage students to share this with their professors. We work with students with autism spectrum disorders on how to share this with their professors (e.g., in person, in an email, with ODS, etc.), and appreciate your sensitivity and understanding in this very personal matter. ODS is available to work with students and faculty to explore accommodations that will be helpful to both without altering fundamental course requirements. We are happy to consult at any time if you have any questions.

Note: If a student has not requested accommodations, ODS might not be aware that a student has ASD. If you think a student in your class has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and would like help accommodating them in your classroom, please contact the ODS.

Common Characteristics of High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder:

Average to above-average intellect

May have a strong, narrow interest in a particular subject area

Some students may be unaware if they are monopolizing a discussion. Some may diverge different topics in answering questions. May appear to be talking "at you" rather than "with you."

Difficulty making and maintaining eye contact

May lack voice intonation and modulation

Difficulty interpreting others' body language and facial expressions

Difficulties understanding the motives and perceptions of others. May not understand social rules.

Literal and concrete thinking. May have difficulties with abstraction and understanding nuance, metaphors and/or sarcasm.

Difficulty with seeing the big picture. May perseverate on details.

Transitions and unexpected changes can cause students to become anxious, and some students may have difficulty regulating their emotions in these situations

Motor clumsiness, unusual body movements and/or repetitive, self-soothing behavior

May be highly sensitive to light, noise, smell, taste, and touch

May have difficulty with organization, e.g., planning, executing, and completing tasks.

Potential Accommodations / Teaching Strategies:

Breaks during class

Extended testing time

Low-distraction testing environment

Advance notice of course changes when possible

Evaluate when partner or group work is fundamentally essential to the course, and when a student may benefit from the opportunity for individual work

Use clear, concrete directives if a student inadvertently invades your space or begins to monopolize a group discussion with questions or comments. Don't be afraid of offending a student. The clearer and concrete you can be about class rules, the better.

List all course requirements in writing, including assignment due dates and test dates. Avoid vague instructions. Provide advance written notice of any changes.

If you use idioms, double meaning or sarcasm, review what you mean in concrete terms.

Should a student become upset by an unexpected change, provide the student with a simple directive (e.g., "Please take a five-minute break and go have a seat quietly in the hallway.") Some students have difficulty regulating and filtering their responses to unforeseen situations, and the emotional reactions of students might appear to be overly reactive to a given situation. Try not to become alarmed and overreact, and maintain a calm, neutral voice. A student may be ashamed if he or she has been unable to control his or her reactions. You can help to neutralize the situation by maintaining an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment while giving the student a calm, clear directive to help him or her regroup (e.g., "Take a minute and go get a drink of water").

Adapted from:

Student Disability Services, Swarthmore College

Access Services, Bryn Mawr College

Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. By Lorraine E. Wolf, Ph,D., Jane Thierfeld Brown, Ed.D., and G. Ruth Kukiela Bork, M.Ed. Shawnee Mission: Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2009.