Faculty Handbook Chapter 17 - Working with Common Disabilities

Faculty Handbook Chapter 17: Working with Common Disabilities

Due to the heterogeneous nature of disability, and the diversity of courses offered at the college, it is not possible to anticipate and address every question or concern that may arise. While all disabilities are unique to the individual, there can be some crossover. Below is a list of common disabilities with strategies for working with each one.

Mental Health

Students with mental health disabilities experience a wide range of challenges in the classroom. Mental health conditions are not generally apparent and some students choose not to receive accommodations from the Center for Accessible Resources (CAR) for these conditions.

We know that it is not possible to generalize about the needs of all students with mental health disabilities. Therefore, it is not possible to list accommodations that work for all students with mental health disabilities. It is important to assess the needs of each student individually. However, there are some strategies that can assist instructors in working with students with mental health disabilities in their classes.

General classroom strategies 

  • Clearly outline course expectations.
  • Make yourself available to meet with students during office hours and via telephone or email.
  • Provide personal and meaningful feedback on academic performances.
  • Approach each student with an open mind about their needs and strengths.
  • Summarize important points from the lecture at the end of class.
  • These students may need to take breaks, or have food/water with them in the classroom (this will be noted in the student’s Letter of Accommodation).

One-on-one interactions 

  • Discuss accommodations and any inappropriate classroom behavior with the student privately. Accommodation specialists can assist with this conversation if necessary.
  • Refer the student to the appropriate therapeutic resources if asked (i.e. Counseling Department on campus).
  • Be patient with the student. Sometimes communication can take a bit longer and you may have to repeat yourself.
  • Listen carefully to the student and work with them to meet their needs when appropriate.


Due to the episodic nature of mental health disabilities, students may go through periods of success and stability as well as acute illness. It is important to only provide the accommodations to a student that are listed in their Letter of Accommodations. If you have further questions about how to work with students with mental health disabilities, please contact CAR.

Mobility and Physical Impairments

Access can be one of the major concerns for students with mobility and physical impairments. Some barriers may include classroom arrangements, furniture, and narrow entryways.

While CAR understands that some of these barriers are out of the instructor’s control, there are a number of items that can be taken into consideration to ensure access for these students. Outlined below are strategies instructors can use when working with students with mobility or physical impairments.

General classroom strategies

  • If possible, arrange the classroom in which you are teaching in such a way that there is room for a student to move around easily.
  • Desks may need to be used that do not have tables attached to the chairs.
  • Keep in mind table height for classes that may have a lab component.
  • Ensure that field trip arrangements allow for accessibility to all students.
  • If alternate furniture is placed in a student’s classroom, ensure that you are not moving this furniture to another location.
  • If a student addresses you with concerns about their alternate furniture, please direct them to CAR.

One-on-one interactions

  • Arrange your office in a way that is accessible for a student with mobility difficulties, or who may be utilizing a wheelchair.

  • Discuss accommodations and ways to best assist the student in a private setting.

  • When talking to a student in a wheelchair, attempt to converse at eye level rather than standing and looking down.

  • Remember that a student with lower body mobility problems is just like any other student sitting down. Don't assume there will be difficulties encountered.

  • Every student with a mobility or physical impairment is going to have different needs. It is important to only provide the accommodations to a student that are listed in their Letter of Accommodation.

If you have further questions about how to work with students with mobility and physical impairments, please contact CAR.

Autism and Asperger’s

Faculty members may encounter students who appear to have characteristics or behaviors related to autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

Common behaviors

  • Individuals with autism process information in distinct ways, and may experience difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication and social interactions.
  • Individuals may be highly gifted in certain areas, such as math, science and technology, or music.
  • Some may see numbers as shapes.
  • Individuals are typically concrete, literal, and/or visual thinkers.
  • Highly intelligent students may have difficulty with organization, initiation, and the ability to get thoughts from mind to paper.

Challenges students with autism or Asperger’s syndrome may experience

  • Difficulty reading emotions/body language of others. Students have problems understanding social rules (i.e. personal space).
  • Difficulty understanding motives and perceptions of others.
  • Social discomfort; difficulty with group projects.
  • Difficulty with transitions and changes in schedules. These can cause high anxiety.
  • Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli: may experience sensory bombardment from noises, activity, lights, textures, and strong smells.
  • Becoming so frustrated and/or overstimulated they freeze and are unable to use coping skills.
  • Sensitivity to normal classroom chatter and activity.
  • Problems with organization (including initiating, carrying out, and finishing tasks).
  • Difficulty with writing. They may write ten words to most students’ ten sentences. It may be easier for students to use a computer.
  • Fixation on details and an inability to see the big picture. Tendency to notice errors, be a perfectionist, and have a fear of failure.
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking and generalizing; some rigidity in thinking.
  • Difficulty with interpreting words with double meanings; they may be confused by metaphors and sarcasm. Writing and literature courses can be challenging.
  • Ability to state facts and details in a writing assignment, but difficulty taking another’s point of view, synthesizing information, comparing and contrasting, using analogies, similes, or metaphors.
  • Problems asking for help.

Strategies for faculty

  • Provide a clear syllabus and clear expectations (or rules) for the classroom.
  • Students may be rule-oriented. If there’s a need to address behavior, speak in terms of the “rules” of the classroom.
  • Provide clear and explicit instructions in both oral and written formats.
  • Provide advance notice of any changes made to the class schedule or assignments.
  • Don’t use absolute words like “always” or “never” unless it’s exactly what you mean.
  • Many process information better visually so pictures, flow charts, and graphs may be helpful.
  • Allow students to type their notes and essay questions.
  • Assist with how to organize a project; students can feel overwhelmed.
  • Make email communication concrete and clear.
  • Let them know that asking for help demonstrates intelligence.
  • Model how to cope with frustration (i.e. staying calm).
  • Help students shift their attention by bringing closure to a previous process.
  • Emphasize that we learn from our mistakes; errors are opportunities to learn.
  • For group projects, help students find a role that will be comfortable (i.e. doing background research or a PowerPoint vs. doing a verbal presentation).
  • Students may need to sit in a specific part of the classroom to minimize distractions and sensory stimulation.
  • Suggest possible resources to students: Early Outreach Specialists, Tutoring Centers, TRiO, Gender Equity Center, Veterans Center, and Center for Accessible Resources.

Vision Impairment

For students who have vision loss, the classroom may present major challenges. The classroom is a visual environment—with textbooks, syllabi, handouts, whiteboards/overheads, digital slides, films, and information on the computer/Moodle.

Faculty members must work with staff at the Center for Accessible Resources (CAR) to prepare needed materials. This may include preparation of alternate format materials (i.e. computer/digital audio versions of texts and handouts, Braille, or tactile diagrams), as well as coordinating accessible technology, notetakers, and visual describers.

For students who are in science classes and labs, there may be additional considerations and strategies to keep in mind in order to provide an accessible learning environment.

Each student has unique challenges based on his/her specific vision loss. Some students may be blind while others may experience a range of vision issues. The following strategies can help guide faculty members when working with students with vision loss in their classes.

General classroom guidelines

The following tips will help a student with low vision, or a student who is blind, be aware of what's happening in the classroom:

  • The student may want to sit away from glaring lights and towards the front for better visibility.
  • When entering or leaving a room, faculty should identify themselves and be sure to mention when leaving. Address the student by name to gain his/her attention.
  • It is not necessary to speak loudly to someone with vision loss.
  • When communicating with a student with vision loss, always identify yourself and others who are present. Don't assume a student who is blind will recognize people by their voices even if she or he has met them before.
  • Use descriptive words such as straight, forward, left, etc. in relation to the student's body orientation. Be specific in directions and avoid the use of vague terms such as “over there,” “here,” “this,” etc.
  • Describe, in detail, pertinent visual aspects involved in learning activities.
  • Describe and familiarize the student (via touch) to the classroom, laboratory, equipment, supplies, materials, field sites, etc.
  • Give verbal notice of room or schedule changes, special meetings, or assignments.
  • Offer to read written information when appropriate.
  • Let the student know if leaving or ending a conversation.
  • Preferential seating be important for a student with vision loss. Since visual cues may not be available, you may want to make sure the student is getting all the auditory cues possible. If the student is using a guide dog, it would be helpful for the student to have an assigned seat so that the dog can aid her/him in getting there.
  • Do not pet or touch a service animal (guide dog). Service animals are working animals. For an individual who is blind, it can be hazardous if the dog is distracted.
  • Be understanding of slight noise made by a Braille notetaker.
  • Use an auditory or tactile signal where a visual signal is normally used.
  • Be sensitive if questioning individuals about their blindness. This is personal information and boundaries should be respected.

Information access for students with vision loss

  • Accessible description will be necessary for pictures, graphics, displays, field sites, and in situations where touch will not identify the items. Oral descriptions will also be needed for orientation and mobility in unfamiliar situations. Work closely with CAR staff to prepare course material for students with vision loss.
  • Verbally describe any visual materials. If demonstrating how to use equipment, be sure to describe the equipment and how to operate it.
  • Read overheads aloud and describe the content of slides (see note below about large print).
  • Provide description of action in videos. If videos are distributed or assigned as part of the course, any action or explanatory text in the video crucial to understanding the context of the presentation should be provided in some capacity.
  • If there are multiple speakers (such as a panel), have each speaker introduce him/herself. During Q & A, each speaker needs to re-identify him/herself prior to responding.
  • Plan ahead to make handouts available in large print, digital, and/or Braille formats.
  • Work closely with CAR staff. All material must be converted, including texts, supplemental readings, online material and PDFs, information from websites used in the course, syllabi, and any handouts related to the course such as calendars. This process may take time; get started as early as possible.
  • When using the whiteboard, lessen the glare as much as possible and write in big letters.
  • Large Print: Students who have low vision may be able to see print if it is large enough. Prepare print information on white paper with sharp, black ink. The easiest font to read is Arial. When students need larger font sizes (i.e. 18 point and up), enlarge the font on the computer prior to printing the handout. In the case of documents already in print form, use a copy machine to enlarge each page onto 11 x 17 paper, or ask CAR to make the enlargements.

Guidelines for health and science classes

  • All colored objects used for identification related to a lesson or experiment should be labeled with a Braille label or other tactile code.
  • Describe in detail all pertinent aspects of visual occurrences and visual media.
  • Use an overhead projector, whiteboard, graphs, or slides as normal, but provide detailed vocal descriptions.
  • Use a sighted visual describer or descriptive video when showing videos/DVDs.
  • Where needed, CAR staff will assist in converting class handouts, directions, and tests to Braille ahead of time.
  • Modify instructions to allow for auditory/tactile presentation.
  • Drawings or graphics can be converted into an embossed in tactile impression to supplement your instruction when needed.
  • Whenever possible, use actual objects/three-dimensional representations which provide tactile information.
  • Find an appropriate place to set up a desktop video magnifier or similar device for long range observations of the board or demonstrations.

Guidelines for labs

  • Describe and spatially familiarize the student with lab and all equipment to be used.
  • Work with CAR staff to label material, supplies, and equipment with large print and/or Braille as appropriate for the student.
  • Assistance may be needed for converting certain laboratory materials from a visual to a tactile format. Please contact CAR for assistance.
  • Have the student with vision loss do a trial run on the equipment before the activity.
  • Allow more time for the laboratory activities.
  • Always try to keep materials, supplies, and equipment in the same places.
  • Leave doors all the way open or all the way closed. Half opened doors or cupboards are dangerous. Don't rearrange furniture or personal belongings without letting the student know.
  • Use a computer/video microscope eyepiece to magnify microscope images for students who have low vision.
  • Use an overhead projector to show step-by-step instructions, masking all the instructions except the one(s) to follow will help students with vision loss.
  • Provide a means for the acquisition and/or recording of data in an appropriate mode for the student. This might be an audio recorder near an activity to record results and observations.
  • Make equipment available for students to interpret and understand the results of laboratory exercises (i.e. audible readout voltmeters, talking calculators, thermometers, and magnifiers; etc.).
  • Use a hot plate for heating instead of a Bunsen burner.
  • Pair the student with vision loss with a sighted student. Then have the sighted student describe the activities and outcomes as observed.
  • Have a lab assistant available to assist students with vision loss (CAR may assign an in-class aide).
  • For some projects that are highly visual, consider alternate activities/exercises (i.e. less visual) that can be completed with less difficulty for the student, but have the same or similar learning objectives.

Lab testing

  • Present exams in an unbiased format to students with vision loss. Ask the student for the approach she or he finds most accessible.
  • Allow the student to start a lab identification test early in order to have more time at various stations.
  • Print tests with larger font size (i.e. 18 pt. or larger) as needed.
  • Make use of visual magnification, audio recorders, and offer oral testing as options.

Field Experiences

  • Make all handouts, safety information, and assignments available in an appropriate form (i.e. regular print, large print, tactile form, Braille, or audio format).
  • Use a sighted guide to assist the student and provide visual descriptions.
  • Provide detailed description and narration of objects seen in science centers, museums, and/or field activities.
  • Make arrangements for tactile examinations, such as plant/animal species collections. If touch is not normally permitted (say, in a museum) then contact the curator for tactile access to museum display items.
  • Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be completed with less difficulty for the student, but have the same or similar learning objectives.

(Note: This information was adapted from the University of West Virginia, 2008)

Hearing Impairment

PDF: CAR Interpreter Brochure

Students with hearing impairments may experience unique challenges in the classroom.
It is important to find strategies that work for both the faculty member and the student when working together in the classroom.  

Classroom Strategies:

  • Include a statement in your course syllabus regarding accommodation issues for students with disabilities. See COPPS for the course syllabi accessibility statement.
  • Make sure that your face is visible when speaking, and try to face the person with hearing loss as much as possible. The student with a hearing impairment might need preferential seating for this reason. The student should be seated near the front of the class so that she/he is in a position to get lip-reading cues or utilize hearing capability (if any). If an interpreter is present, make sure the student can see both you and the interpreter with clear sight lines.
  • Don't talk with your back to the class (i.e. when writing on the whiteboard) as it hinders the student with a hearing impairment from getting facial or lip-reading cues.
  • Provide context and repetition, which is helpful not only to students with hearing loss, but to other students as well. Announce what’s about to happen and recap what’s just taken place.
  • When questions are asked from the class, it would be beneficial to the student with a hearing impairment to repeat the question before answering it.
  • Keep instructions brief and uncomplicated as much as possible. When repeating instructions, repeat exactly without paraphrasing.
  • Use more than one way to demonstrate or explain information.
  • Allow several moments extra for oral responses in class discussions.
  • In small group discussions, allow for participation by students with hearing impairments. Circular seating arrangements offer students who are deaf or hard of hearing the best advantage for seeing all class participants.
  • It is important that only one person speak or sign at a time. The interpreting process only allows one person to communicate at a time. Therefore, encourage students to wait before speaking or signing until you recognize or call on them.
  • If there is a break in the class, get the attention of the student who is deaf or hard of hearing before resuming class.
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing often use vision as a primary means of receiving information. Captioned videos, overheads, diagrams, and other visual aids are useful instructional tools for students with hearing impairments as well as students with various types of learning styles.
  • Allow ample time for reading! The student cannot read and watch the interpreter at the same time. Avoid talking while students are focused on written work or overhead projections/multimedia presentations.
  • Avoid lecturing or giving out procedural information while handing out papers. Losing eye contact with the student may also mean the loss of information for the student.
  • Provide lists of the subject-specific jargon and technical terms which students will need to acquire early in the course. If interpreters are being used, make this list available to the professionals providing the service as early as possible.

Communication one-on-one:

  • Look at and speak directly to the person who is hearing impaired. They may need to look more at an interpreter but it is important to direct all communication to the individual with a hearing impairment.
  • Be yourself! Speak clearly and at your natural pace. Be aware that an interpreter may wait to hear and understand a complete thought before beginning to interpret. They will let you know if you need to repeat or slow down.
  • Try not to mumble, shout, or over-enunciate words.
  • Ask the person with a hearing impairment to explain something if you do not understand it or ask them how the interpreting process works. Try not to engage the interpreter or ask them to explain what the person means. Remember that when the interpreter speaks, he/she is voicing the words of the individual who is deaf. The interpreter is not a participant in the interaction.

Learning Disabilities

Many students with learning disabilities find it challenging to acquire course knowledge and skills in the same way as their peers. This may mean that they struggle to learn through traditional teaching methods. It is important to remember that each student’s experiences and challenges with a learning disability will be different. However, there are some strategies instructors can use to help ensure access to learning for these students.

General classroom strategies

  • Some students with learning disabilities may have trouble with writing. Be sure to communicate your requirements for written assignments early to give the student time to prepare.
  • Present course material in a variety of formats and adhere to Universal Design guidelines to ensure access for all.
  • Read aloud material that is written on the whiteboard or on projections.
  • Encourage study groups and assist students in forming these.
  • Vary your teaching methods (i.e. lecture, discussion, small groups).
  • Summarize key points in readings and lectures.
  • Do not ask students with reading disabilities to read aloud in class.
  • Students with a reading disability may take longer to complete more complex texts.
  • It could be helpful if vocabulary and jargon specific or unique to a particular course is written on the board during lecture.

One-on-one interactions 

  • Give students oral feedback on assignments.
  • Encourage students to attend regular tutoring sessions if necessary.
  • Don't be afraid to discuss with the student individually what his/her/their limitations are and what situations are difficult them.
  • Discuss accommodations and any inappropriate classroom behavior with the student privately. Accommodation specialists can assist with this conversation if necessary.

Keep in mind that learning strategies that work for one student with a learning disability may not work for another. As a reminder, it is important to only provide the accommodations to a student that are listed in their Letter of Accommodations. 
If you have further questions about how to work with students with learning disabilities, please contact CAR.

Some Characteristics of the Written Expression of Students with Learning Disabilities


Often the student's writing looks childish. Letters may be poorly or incorrectly formed, the writing may sprawl unevenly across the page, and crude block letter printing may frequently be seen.


Spelling errors may be manifold, demonstrating little resemblance between the sight and sound of the word. Basic sight words may be misspelled, such as “which,” “every,” “for,” “they,” while more difficult words are produced correctly. Reversals of letters within a word may occur. Letters may be arbitrarily repeated. Endings may be omitted. 

Common spelling errors

“reference” for “reverence”
“gramer” for “grammar”
“museam” for “museum”
“atitude” for “attitude” 

Characteristic LD Spelling Errors

“equiptment” for “equipment”
“facecion” for “physician”
“presuse” for “precious”
“quitity" for “quantity” 

Choice of topic

  • Students with learning disabilities often pick concrete, simple topics. A narrative is usually the simplest to handle because an experience is already structured chronologically. Although they may have little difficulty discussing more abstract topics, students with learning disabilities may not be able to organize their thoughts easily to set down on paper.


  • Discourse is frequently disconnected with little logical transition from one point to another. Word choice is poor. For example: “For instance, one who cannot hear of one who cannot see as readily as a 'normal' individual is stricken with the inability to perform just a normal individual in today's society.”


  • Written vocabulary may not match oral vocabulary. Students often are very aware of their spelling deficiencies and will limit their expression severely rather than risk misspelling.


  • Students experiencing learning disabilities have the predictable mechanical errors that any student might demonstrate. Usually it is a question of degree of difficulty. Besides sentence fragments, mistaken pronoun reference, run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, etc., students may randomly sprinkle capital letters throughout a paragraph, misuse standard end punctuation, and use various homonyms creatively—“sun” for “son,” “two” for “too” or “to,” “toed” for “towed,” etc.

Appearance of the paper

  • Besides the specific items mentioned above, papers of students with learning disabilities can frequently look disheveled. There are often many cross-outs, write-overs, and erasures. This is different from an edited paper, where corrections and additions are being made. The appearance of the student's paper may signal having word-to-word difficulty.