Understanding Disabilities and Teaching Strategies
Introduction: Each semester 1 out of 10 students in every college classroom across the country is a student with a disability. A 2008 Study of New Jersey Campus Programs for Students with Disabilities (New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, 2009) reported that the community college sector serves the largest number of students with disabilities. At MCC, we typically have over 600 students register and self-identify with the Disability Services Office. However, this number is most likely low as students are not required to disclose any information regarding their disability. Therefore, you as a faculty member should expect that you will have students with disabilities in your classes at some point. These students are part of the culture and fabric of Middlesex County College.
Accommodating students with disabilities is a shared responsibility. Faculty, students and disability services staff must work together to coordinate reasonable accommodations for student with disabilities who request accommodations. At the College level, students with disabilities must present documentation that the Disability Services staff is charged by the institution to review and make recommendations for reasonable accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guides our decisions. There is a legal and ethical foundation to our work with students. Failure to provide reasonable accommodation can put an individual faculty member and the institution at legal risk.
As an educator, your efforts can contribute to greater academic and career success for the students you have in your classes. Knowledge about legal issues, accommodation strategies, and campus resources for students with disabilities can greatly increase their chances for success. At Middlesex County College, we have had a long favorable legacy of support services and successes. Studies show that faculty members who are familiar with accommodation strategies are better prepared to make arrangements to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity (not an unfair advantage) to fully participate in their academic programs. In addition, faculty and staff who have had interactions with students with disabilities have more positive attitudes about working with these students. Today, there is a push in higher education for faculty to consider the concept of Universal Design in Instruction, or how to reach many different learners including students with disabilities by being as inclusive in their instructional style as possible. Disability Services including Project Connections, Adapted Testing and the Assistive Technology Lab, are our key resource when working with students with disabilities.
Accommodations are not considered reasonable if they:
• Make a fundamental change in the standards of a program or course
• Alter course objectives
• Impose an undue financial or administrative burden to the institution or
• Pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.
It is typically the responsibility of Disability Services and Project Connections to:
• Maintain confidential records of the student’s disability.
• Recommend and coordinate accommodations ( e. g. sign language interpreters, books in alternative format, testing accommodations)
• Assist in arranging for Assistive Technology.
• Provide recommendations for other resources on and off campus.
• Act as an advocate or voice for a student with a disability when requested and needed.
General Teaching Strategies: Below are strategies that benefit students with disabilities and assist in creating an equitable classroom. Some of these strategies may benefit all learners and may be described as “Universal Design”.
• Provide a copy of your syllabus in advance and post to Campus Cruiser for students to access either the first day of the semester or even before the semester begins. Include all semester due dates on your syllabus so that students can plan their work load ahead. Talk it through the first day of class.
• Include a disability Statement on your syllabus: “ If you have a disability and will need academic accommodations please connect with Disability Services in ED100/732.906.2546.
• If open, encourage students to discuss what strategies and accommodations have worked for them. Work with Disability Services to provide the needed supports. If you have any concerns or questions regarding the recommended accommodations please do not hesitate to contact the person who signed the accommodation form for further discussion.
• Write an outline or key points on the board or power point before or during the lecture. Remember that all students have varying learning styles and your class may include students who have a visual, auditory or kinesthetic preference, as well as students with disabilities who have a disability that might impact any one or more of their senses.
• Provide written explanations of all assignments and discuss them in class. Offer office hour time and contact information for students to follow up with you as needed.
• Be mindful when selecting a text book or other instructional materials of the need for the book to be available in alternate format. Discussing the needs of students with disabilities with the publishers will assure that this is possible.
• Be mindful of the need for closed captioning for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. If you have a deaf student in class do not show a film that is not closed captioned unless alternate arrangements have been made.
• Be aware that a recent Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights Letter (2010) was issued to all institutions requiring that any technologies required at an institution be accessible to students with disabilities. Your voice at Department meetings that your department is mindful of the needs of students with disabilities will ensure that the institution is in compliance.
• Present topics using a variety of instructional methods including oral, visual and hands on projects. Provide cognitive supports such as summarizing major points, providing contextual information, offer scaffolding tools (outlines, class notes, summaries, study guides, copies of projected notes).
• Allow for voluntary student responses rather than calling directly on students. This is especially sensitive for students with speech and communication issues and students with short term processing disorders.
• Be open to assisting students in locating an effective peer note taker, as indicated on the student’s Classroom Accommodation Form.
• Please do not provide disability related accommodations unless you have received a Classroom Accommodation Form from a student.
Common Mistakes Made by Faculty
• Refusing to provide approved accommodations
• Questioning whether the student has a disability or asking for information about their diagnosis.
• Inadvertently disclosing to classmates that a student has a disability.
• Not cooperating with the recommendations regarding Adapted Testing Services and insisting that a student take the “first” exam in class without proctoring with stated accommodations.
• Not providing accommodations in an online course.
Online Course Accessibility:
Just as we as an institution are responsible to ensure access to all facilities, programs and services on our campus, we also have a responsibility to ensure that courses offered online are accessible. Applying universal design principles makes webpages accessible to individuals with a wide range of disabilities. In 1999, guidelines for making webpages accessible were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). More recently, the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed standards for webpages of federal agencies as mandated by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998. These standards provide a model for organizations to make their webpages accessible to the broadest audience.
Tips for making webpage content and navigation may be found at http://www.washington.edu/accessit/kb.php. Faculty should be mindful of graphics that are utilized that might be inaccessible to a person who is blind. If graphics are used, than a text description needs to be created that can be accessible to text to speech software. If the class includes a video presentation, captioning should be provided for those with hearing impairments and audio description should be provided for those who are blind. Sometimes, online courses include teleconferencing opportunities for discussion in small groups. This mode of communication provides challenges for students who are deaf and may need to use the Relay Service in order to participate. As well, if the class requires real time communication, some students with learning disabilities take a long time to compose written communication. Various options should be discussed with the student. It is strongly suggested that departments include information in any promotional materials on how to request accommodations and publications in alternate format.
Disability Specific Information and Strategies:
Tony Atwood defines Asperger’s Syndrome as “A neurological disorder that affects one’s ability to understand and respond to others’ thoughts and feelings”. This disorder is often described as being at the high end of the Autism Spectrum and sometimes referred to as “High functioning Autism”
• Poor eye contact
• Inappropriate social interaction
• Unusually strong narrow interests
• Above average to superior intelligence
• Lack of voice intonation
• Very literal and concrete thinking patterns
• Difficulties adjusting to change
• Hypersensitivity to sensory stimulus
• Difficulty interpreting body language of others
• Motor clumsiness
• Organizational difficulties
• Poor handwriting
• Attempt to monopolize conversations
• Become tangential in answering questions
• Exhibit distracting behavior in long classes
• Engage in self-stimulating behaviors (e.g. rocking, tapping, manipulating objects)
• Be argumentative
• Provide clear expectations and rules for behavior.
• Redirect response to bring student to point of answer.
• Provide clearly established and ordered routines.
• Stop inappropriate behaviors with short, clear and precise statements, as non-verbal cues are often missed.
• Instruct student who engages in preservative questioning or commenting to write down his/her questions and comments and address them after class.
• Allow students to use word-processing software for essay questions, bring a lap top to class for note taking or assist in finding a peer note taker.
• Try to avoid sarcasm, double meanings and idiomatic expressions.
Adapted from Montclair State University
Additional information may be found at www.aspen.org.
Seizures can occur anywhere and every instructor is likely to have at least one or more students with epilepsy in class at sometime during their career. Understanding seizures can empower instructors and students to respond calmly and appropriately when a seizure happens. Misconceptions about how to handle seizures is very common. Some tips from the Epilepsy Foundation include:
• Do call 911 for assistance. Many students prefer that we do not call for emergency assistance because of the medical bill they will receive, but campus policies recommend that you make the call. Send another student to make the call and stay with the student who has had a seizure.
• Do cushion a student’s head. This can be done with a backpack or jacket. Remove any sharp items from the immediate area.
• Do turn the student on one side to keep the airway clear.
• Do time the seizure. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes report that to the paramedic when they arrive.
• Do remain with the student until full consciousness returns. You can let the class take a brief break to give the student a bit more privacy. The student may feel embarrassed when the seizure is over.
• Do Not put anything in the student’s mouth.
• Do Not panic, the way you respond can affect the way others respond. Stay calm and in control.
• Do Not restrain or hold the student down. Doing so may cause pulled and torn muscles and can result in broken bones.
• Do Not treat the student any differently when they return to class.
• Do contact Disability Services or the College’s Health Office if you have any concerns or if you have any other students who are concerned about witnessing the seizure.
For additional information about seizures, the Epilepsy Foundation Website is www.epilepsyfoundation.org.
In recent years, the number of students diagnosed with disabilities who are attending college has increased dramatically. At MCC and across the country the single largest growing populations of students with disabilities are students with learning disabilities. Of the approximate 600 students who are linked with Disability Services at MCC over 70% of those students are students with learning disabilities. Project Connections, a selective admission support service program, serves 160 college able students with learning disabilities each year. The program is externally funded through the Federal Department of Education.
Often times, students with learning disabilities are not readily observable. Some faculty and administrators even doubt the legitimacy of the disability and at times have said that they believe students are faking it, seeking unfair advantage or lack the intelligence to succeed at the College level because the disability is invisible. Please keep in mind that students with learning disabilities are not cognitively challenged. Although the processes by which a student learns may be disrupted, his/her capacity to learn remains intact.
What You Need to Know About Learning Disabilities:
Generally speaking, students diagnosed with learning disabilities receive the diagnosis if they have average or above average intelligence and there is a significant discrepancy between their academic achievement and their intellectual ability. The diagnosis is typically made when a student is in elementary school by a Child Study Team that includes psychologist, learning disability specialists and other professional staff members. However, at times, students are not picked up in early grades and are only diagnosed in college, at times on referral of their college professors. There are many types of learning disabilities including:
Dyslexia: refers to difficulties in reading, sometimes in word recognition, sometimes in comprehension.
Dysgrahia: refers to difficulties in written language skills including spelling, getting thoughts to paper, fluency in writing.
Dyscalculia: refers to difficulties in calculation and mathematical concepts.
Organizational and Reasoning Skills: refers to difficulties in organization and integration of thoughts and ideas.
Individuals with learning disabilities often difficulties with fluency (speed) and may process auditory and visual information more slowly than the average person. Impacts in fluency may affect a student’s ability to read, write, do math or process new information. The most frequently requested accommodation is the provision of extended time. Some students have difficulties with memory either in long term or short term. Some students have difficulties with abstract reasoning skills and higher level reasoning skills.
Learning disabilities may also be present along with other disabilities including brain injuries, Attention Deficit Disorder and Psychiatric Disorders.
Teaching Strategies and Accommodations:
The goal for any recommendation for accommodations is to demonstrate their abilities and equal access to learning. Individualized accommodations are not designed to give the student an unfair advantage over other students, to alter a fundamental aspect of a course or program, nor to weaken academic rigor. A specific learning disability is unique to each individual, therefore, accommodations are tailored to each individual student. The following are examples of classroom accommodations, though the list is not meant to be exhaustive. When in doubt about how to assist a student, work with the student privately or contact Disability Services to discuss your concerns.
You may be asked to:
• You may be asked to provide materials early to allow students sufficient time to read and comprehend the material. Many students with learning disabilities use computer software to read the textbook and other text based materials aloud. In order to take advantage of this technology, the printed text must be converted into an electronic file.
• Assist the student in locating a peer note taker in class, if that is requested paperwork will be attached to the student’s Classroom Accommodation Form. Alternatively, you could provide a copy of your lecture notes or an outline. Some students prefer to use a recorder. Students who do not attend class are not entitled to copies of notes.
• Cooperate with the testing accommodations indicated on the Accommodation Form and with the procedures of the Adapted Testing Center.
• Typical testing accommodations might include:
Distraction limited testing
The use of a reader, scribe, word-processor or other assistive technology
The use of a calculator for math exams
The Faculty Room: A space for faculty and administrators at postsecondary institutions to learn how to created classroom environments and activities that maximize the learning of all students including those with learning disabilities:
LD Online: is a comprehensive website on learning disabilities for parents, teachers and other professionals.
The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) : is a non-profit grassroots organization whose members are individuals with learning disabilities, their families and professional may seek additional information:
Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder:
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV TR, 2000). Students with ADHD or ADD (without hyperactivity) may have difficulty with one or more of the following areas:concentration, distractibility, organization, completing tasks, following directions, listening, sitting for lengthy periods of time, planning.
Some students with ADHD take medication for their condition. This medication may be a stimulant, which actually calms them and helps him/her focus on tasks. Anti-depressants may also be used.
• Provide a syllabus with clear expectations and due dates. Study guides, review sheets and frequent opportunities for feedback are helpful with organizational difficulties.
• Cooperate with Adapted Testing Accommodations. Many students with attention issues request a distraction limited testing environment and at times extended time in testing.
• Cooperate with a request for a peer note taker or the use of a recorder.
• If advising students, encourage them to plan their schedules carefully to avoid taking too many classes back to back.
http://ada.osu/resources/fastfacts Ohio State University Partnership Grant
Head Injury/Traumatic Brain Injury:
More than one million people incur head injuries each year between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight. Brain injury can result in a closed head trauma or accident, cerebral vascular accident or tumor. The consequences of brain injury are many and complex. We are seeing many Veterans returning from combat duty presenting with brain injuries as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is also great variation in the possible effects of a head injury. However, most injuries result in difficulties with memory, speed of thinking, communication and language functions, executive functions, psychosocial behaviors and motor, sensory and physical abilities. On the surface, problems encountered by individuals with a head injury are often similar to those with learning disabilities. However, there are significant differences between the two disabilities. Many individuals with brain injury may have more extreme discrepancies in ability levels and more severe problems generalizing and integrating skills. Many individuals may also have difficulties accepting their limitations as they retain a pre-trauma self-concept.
• Cooperate with Adapted Testing Recommendations that often include recommendations for extended time, distraction limited testing and the use of assistive technology in testing.
• Use of a peer note taker or recorder.
http://www.biausa.org/ - The Brain Injury Association, leading national organization serving and representing individuals, families and professional affected by a traumatic brain injury.
An emerging population of students appearing on college and university campuses nation wide is students with intellectual disorders. In 2008, The Higher Education Opportunity Act Amendments was passed allowing students with intellectual disabilities to be eligible for PELL Grants and other resources. Currently across the county, over 250 institutions have responded with formal programs to serve this group of students. Families have exerted significant pressure in this movement so that students will have opportunities beyond high school commensurate with their peers. In New Jersey a program exists at The College of New Jersey and Mercer County College. At some institutions, special programs have been designed for students while at others students are taking some college classes with support. Given the fact that MCC is an Open Admission institution, each semester we do have students with intellectual disabilities attending classes. These students typically differ from other students (primarily students with learning disabilities) as their intelligence is not within the normal range. While we at MCC do not have a “special program” for students it is possible that you may be asked to provide similar accommodations if they present documentation to our office of functional limitations.
• Cooperate with the Accommodations listed on the Classroom Accommodation Form.
• Assist in locating a peer note taker, if requested or the use of a recorder.
• Encourage students to use existing tutorial resources, as appropriate.
www.thinkcollege.net – A resource of information regarding programs and services for students with intellectual disabilities
www.transitiontocollege.net: A resource for students and families on information regarding the college experience.
Over recent years there has been an increase in the numbers of students attending College with a diagnosed mental illness. In part, the increase is thought to be do the improvement of medications that allows students to be able to function in a college environment. “Mental Illness” refers to a collection of all diagnosable mental disorders including Depression, Bipolar Affective Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, Anxiety Disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. Mental illnesses are an invisible disability, rarely apparent to others. In recent times, many Veterans are attending College and presenting with psychiatric illness issues, particularly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Many students are reluctant to share the specifics of their illnesses due to the worry of the stigma attached to the disorder. Media attention to crimes involving those with psychiatric histories often feeds the fears. College personnel are often fearful about the possibility of violence or extreme fragility. In actuality, relatively few students with psychological disabilities react to stress with threatening behavior.
Symptoms: Although a mental illness is an “invisible disability”, students with psychiatric disorders may experience symptoms that can interfere with their education and participation in college. These symptoms may include:
• Confused or disorganized thinking; strange or grandiose ideas
• Difficulty concentrating, making decisions or memory problems
• Extreme highs or lows in mood
• Denial of obvious problems and a strong resistance to offers of help
• Heightened anxieties, fears, suspicions or blaming others
• Thinking, writing or talking about suicide
• Difficulties with medication side effects
• Difficulties handling time pressures and multiple tasks
• Severe test anxiety
• Difficulty interacting with others
• Students on medication may experience fatigue, thirst or blurred vision.
You may be asked to:
• Address a variety of learning styles
• Incorporate experiential learning activities
• Be prepared to set very clear behavioral expectations for all students in class
• Assist in coordinating note taking support
• Cooperate with recommendations for Adapted Testing Services including extended time, distraction limited test environment
• Cooperate with the use of a recorder for note taking purposes
• Reasonable cooperation with absences if illness exacerbates
However, if a student’s behavior is unacceptable faculty do have the right to use the Code of Student Conduct. Having a psychiatric disorder does not excuse a student from behaving appropriately in class and on campus in all programs and activities. Please consult with the staff of Counseling and Career Services if you believe you have a student whose behavior is disruptive.
From Academic Accommodations for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities (2009). Alfred Souma, Nancy Rickerson, and Sherly Burgstahler
The Faculty Room, Psychiatric Impairments
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
American Psychological Association
Health Related Impairments:
Each semester there are a significant number of students on campus with “invisible disabilities” such as cancer, diabetes, kidney, lung, AIDS, Immune System Disorders, Sickle Cell Anemia and many other medical issues. Sometimes, students with these issues choose not to self-identify to anyone about their issues, however, if they need and are requesting accommodations need to follow our established procedure and submit documentation from their treating physician.
You may be asked to:
• Assist in securing a peer note taker or other note taking arrangements
• Cooperate with recommendations for Adapted Testing Services
• Be flexible about attendance, in a reasonable time frame
• Use of email to facilitate communication
www.diabetes.org – The American Diabetes Association
www.msfacts.org - The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation
Deafness and Hard of Hearing:
Hearing impairments are the greatest chronic physical disability in the United States. The greatest challenge for students is communication. The age of onset of hearing loss generally determines the severity of the impact of the disability. Individuals may use a variety of supports to communicate. Some rely on lip reading, though even the most proficient lip reader can comprehend 30 to 40 percent of spoken English. Individuals with a sufficient degree of residual hearing may be helped by the amplification of hearing aids, including assistive listening devices in public address systems and in the classroom. The College has several assistive listening devices available to loan to students upon request.
The main form of communication for someone who is totally deaf is a sign language interpreter. The primary sign language is American Sign Language (ASL). The grammar used in ASL is different than English grammar. Thus, students may make errors in written English resulting from grammatical differences in the structure of the two languages. Faculty should be aware that these mistakes are not related to the student’s intelligence. Some students will use interpreters in class. Arrangements for interpreting are made through the Disability Services Office. Typically, the student using an interpreter will also need a note taker as they cannot watch the interpreter and take notes at the same time.
• If the student is accompanied to class with an interpreter, make the class aware of their presence.
• Avoid standing in front of windows or other sources of light, since glare blocks vision for lip reading.
• Don’t block the area around your mouth when speaking.
• Reserve front row seating to allow for lip reading.
• When using an interpreter direct all conversation to the student, not the interpreter.
• Repeat questions or statements from other students.
• When possible, provide the student with class outlines, notes and lists of new terms.
• Be aware of the use of videos or embedded videos need to be captioned. Provide scripts for narrated Power Points.
• Cooperate with testing accommodations, as indicated on the student’s accommodation form.
• If you need to contact a student by phone you may use the NJ Relay Operator at 800.852.7897.
http://netac.rit.edu/publication/taskforce/ National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
http://www.asha.org The Amercian Speech-Language Hearing Association
http://www.dcmp.org Described and Captioned Media Program
http://www.harkle.com Search engine for captioned video and media
http://www.ncicap.org National Captioning Institute
Blindness and Low Vision:
A “legally blind” person is one whose vision, while wearing corrective lenses does not exceed 20/200 in the better eye, or whose visual field is less than an angle of 20 degrees. Ninety percent of individuals who are identified as legally blind have some useful vision or light perception. A person who is “blind” experiences a complete lack of vision, though they may have some perception of light and colors. They often depend on other senses of hearing and touch to gather information. Some individuals who are blind may be accompanied by a seeing eye dog. ( Please remember these dogs are “working” and should not be petted)
The major challenges facing students with vision loss in a college environment are the massive amounts of printed materials and the negotiation of the campus terrain. The increasing use of videos, films, power points and computers adds to the volume of material a student needs to access in an alternate way. The College maintains a membership with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, Bookshare and Access Text Link for support in ordering books in alternate format upon request. At times, staff interacts directly with publishers to order materials. Faculty are urged when selecting books and materials to ask about accessibility options as they interact with publishers. The Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights issued a letter to all College and University Presidents (2010) as notice that an institution may require students to use any technology that is inaccessible to students using assistive technology. Faculty are encouraged to consider these issues when creating power points and online course materials. Please see online course accessibility guidelines for further suggestions.
• Provide a book list in advance to allow ample time to access the title in an alternate format.
• Cooperate with testing accommodations as indicated on the student’s Classroom Accommodation Form.
• Post high quality PDF documents that are able to be read using screen reading software.
• Offer Power Point presentations in HTML format so that they are accessible to screen readers.
• Allow use of Assistive Technology as necessary in class.
• Permit use of recording lectures as necessary or a peer note taker.
• Enlarge handouts, as requested.
• Consider alternate assignments in lab/field trips/situations where warranted and not a fundamental alteration to the class.
• Do not avoid using words “look” and “see”.
• Read words and figures aloud as you write them on the board avoiding the use of “this” and “that”.
• Consider the implications for lab situations and the potential need for assistive technology and other modifications to accommodate a student.
• Consult with the Assistive Technology Coordinator for support as needed including available assistive technology and raised line drawing capabilities.
www.afb.org American Foundation for the Blind
http://www.washington.edu/doit/Video/ea_sci_sensory A ten minute video demonstrating key considerations for students in lab and science coursework.
Mobility impairment is a term referring to a broad range of disabilities including orthopedic, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders. Some conditions are from birth, while others may be the result of illnesses or diseases. The range of disabilities in this category is large and may included spinal cord injuries, quadriplegia, paraplegia, cerebral palsy, amputations and back disorders. Functional abilities will vary widely, even within one disability group. Some conditions cause pain and lack of coordination.
The major challenge for students with mobility impairments is physical access on the campus. Some students may use a wheelchair, assistive walking devices or prosthesis in order to navigate the environment. The student must learn to negotiate the campus and where to best park. At times, students request that the College moves a classroom to consolidate their travel time. With ample lead time we regularly accommodate student’s requests, provided the class can be moved. Arrangements are coordinated by the Disability Services Office and the Office of the Registrar. Similarly, if a faculty office is in an inaccessible building, faculty regularly moves to an accessible location to meet with a student.
• Remember that a physical disability is often separate from issues of cognition.
• When speaking with someone in a wheelchair and the conversation continues for more than a minute or two, sit or kneel down to be at eye level.
• Don’t hang on a person’s wheelchair; it is part of their personal space.
• If transportation is provided to a college event, accessible transportation must also be provided if requested.
• Arrange classroom space to accommodate a student’s wheelchair or other mobility needs.
• Cooperate with requests for note takers, if needed.
• Cooperate with recommendations for Adapted Testing Services.
• Plan ahead for lab implications.
• When in doubt about how best to assist just ask!