Information for Faculty Regarding Students With Disabilities
Students who disclose disabilities to the Academic Skills Center have been admitted to the College using the same standards for admission as all other students. There are ways for faculty to support the continued success of students with disabilities. The following information is meant to provide faculty members with practical strategies to implement in order to support students with disabilities, but you will find that these practices may be helpful to all students. As always, faculty should feel welcome to reach out to the staff of the Academic Skills Center with any specific questions, and remember that we are always available to address concerns or offer strategies.
One way to start off the semester on the right foot is to ensure that all expectations are clear from day one. It is important to include a statement in you syllabus informing students with disabilities that they should notify you of their need for accommodations early in the semester (usually within the first week or so). You may also consider making it a point to read that statement aloud in class. It is the student’s responsibility to complete blue accommodations forms through the Academic Skills Center at the start of every semester, and a statement in your syllabus serves as an important reminder of this.
Confidentiality is essential when discussing disability information. Our recommendation to students is that they meet with you in private to present the blue accommodations form to you. We encourage students to engage you in an open conversation about their strengths, weaknesses, and the accommodations they will be using that semester. Many students are very open about their disabilities, and sharing that information with you helps them to feel understood; this conversation could be the start of a meaningful student/professor bond. However, disclosing a disability is a personal choice for each student, and a student’s disability and/or accommodations should never be discussed in front of other students unless the student has openly expressed a desire for this to happen. For these reasons, we recommend having these conversations in private.
How to Refer to People with Disabilities
As is true in almost all areas of life, the language we use when referring to people with disabilities matters. The following are some suggestions for communication with and about students with disabilities:
Receiving a Request for Accommodations
Procedurally, formal requests for accommodations will come to you as a blue accommodations form signed by a member of the Academic Skills Center staff. The accommodations in these letters are meant to provide the requesting student with access to the content and an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of that content. Although a student may request an accommodation at any time, we encourage students to complete their blue forms early in the semester. It is important to remember that just because a student has the right to use an accommodation (Ex: testing in our office), does not mean that the student is required to use that accommodation. The individual student has the prerogative to choose to take advantage of his or her accommodations, but he/she also has the right not to use the accommodations.
Any faculty member considering denying an accommodation because it modifies an essential course requirement should consult with the Director of the Academic Skills Center before doing so. If you have any questions about how to accommodate a student, please contact a member of the Academic Skills Center staff.
Making a Referral to the Academic Skills Center
Faculty members sometimes contact the Academic Skills Center regarding students they feel might benefit from services offered by our office. If you see a student who is struggling, and that student has not presented you with a blue accommodations form, please feel free to refer that student to the Academic Skills Center. It is possible that that student has not heard of our office, and perhaps our services could make a big difference in that student’s ability to succeed. However, only the student can decide to disclose his or her disability, or to pursue information about services available in the Academic Skills Center. If a student is requesting accommodations but has not presented you with a blue accommodations form from our office, you may ask the student to contact ASC.
Students with Learning Disabilities
A person who is diagnosed with a learning disability is likely to have have difficulty processing written or spoken information to the point that it interferes with his or her ability to read, write, spell, listen, talk, or do math. Like all people, each student with a learning disability will have a unique combination of abilities and deficiencies. You’ll find that some areas of functioning will be in an average or above average (or even gifted) range, while deficiencies will vary from minimal to severe. The degree to which a specific student’s disability impacts his or her performance in your class may change with time or stress level.
Characteristics of Common Learning Disabilities
College students with dyslexia or other print related learning disabilities experience the printed word in a way that is different from their peers. For these students, difficulties are likely to be linked to slower reading rates and misreading what is written due to transposing letters and skipping words altogether. Particularly in instances where they are being timed, reading is not automatic or fluid. For these reasons, it may take a student with dyslexia or reading related disabilities a longer time to read books and articles, to locate a word in a dictionary, to find a particular passage, or to find their place when reading. It is fairly common for students with reading related disabilities to experience nervousness or anxiety when presented with large volumes of printed material to read, or when asked to read something aloud. While voluminous readings are a reality for any college student, accommodations such as converting a text to an electronic format or using electronic text books can improve both reading speed and comprehension for students with dyslexia and other reading related disabilities. Extended time for tests is also an extremely common (and usually helpful) accommodation for these students.
Some college students have learning disabilities that make it difficult to communicate effectively though writing. These difficulties may manifest themselves through sentence structure confusion, poorly organized essays, or even through illegible or tedious handwriting (dysgraphia). The work these students submit may appear careless. While it is not appropriate to lower academic standards, it is also important to remember that these students have usually put equal or greater effort into their writing than do students who do not have disabilities. It may also help to be aware of the types of errors these students are likely to make. Missing words or phrases, choppy organization, lower-level vocabulary, spelling or grammar errors, and poorly formed, illegible, or unevenly spaced letters are common traits for students with writing disabilities.
Some of the difficulties students with written language disabilities have may be mitigated by the use of a computer or word processor with spell check, grammar check, and cut and paste capabilities for in-class essays and essay exams.
In order to succeed in college-level math courses, students must have strong language, memory, sequencing, and problem-solving skills. Spatial awareness and the ability to conceptualize abstract concepts are also essential skills for college math. Students with a dyscalculia diagnosis (math disability) have difficulty reasoning and calculating numbers, and they tend to make frequent “silly mistakes” like reversing numbers, miscopying/misaligning columns of figures, and making errors when changing operational signs. Some students with learning disabilities in mathematics have difficulty remembering and working through the sequence of steps required to solve a problem (so that steps may be repeated, performed out of order, or forgotten altogether). These students may also have problems with mental math, estimations, and/or organizing a problem, especially when it is a word-problem or when the student must first remember and perform calculations to obtain missing data. Like other disabilities, math disabilities contribute to anxiety and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities. This anxiety may be related to a lack of understanding of the content, the pace at which it was presented, the allotted time for assessment, or all of the above. It could even be associated with negative past experiences with math. Students with math disabilities and anxieties usually benefit from regular and frequent work with a tutor and clarification from the instructor, as needed. In addition, extended time for testing, a separate room with reduced distractions, and use of a multiplication table, a paper calculator, and/or scrap paper for exams can all be helpful accommodations for students with math disabilities.
The process of successfully mastering a second language is extremely complex: it requires effective hearing and the ability to accurately differentiate sounds, strong comprehension skills and memory, a firm grasp on grammar and sentence structure rules, the ability to retrieve information quickly, and effective communication skills. For students whose learning disabilities relate to distinguishing, processing, remembering, and expressing sounds and words, learning a foreign language can be problematic. The majority of students who fit this profile will opt for one of the CORE140 Foreign Cultures courses, which are taught in English. However, this is not always the case. Students with these types of disabilities who enroll in a foreign language course will most likely benefit from multi-sensory instruction, plenty of oral practice, and extended time for oral and written responses. On occasion, despite conscientious effort by the student paired with the strategies listed above, students experience extreme and persistent difficulties in learning a foreign language. In such cases, you should strongly consider reaching out to the Academic Skills Center staff as early in the semester as possible.
Because learning disabilities affect some, but not all, of a student’s skills and abilities, some students have no problem articulating their thoughts in writing, but struggle greatly when it comes to oral responses or speeches. When social interactions are a problem, as can be the case with students on the Autism Spectrum, class participation and public speaking can be extremely difficult. Examples of problems commonly seen in these cases include frequent verbal pauses (uh, er, um), slower rate of speed in gathering and expressing thoughts, inappropriate volume of speech, and difficulty monitoring emotions when speaking. The Academic Skills Center staff employ a variety of strategies to help these students overcome some of the barriers that make oral communication difficult. One example is suggesting that the student prepare a response ahead of time where possible. When class participation is heavily weighted, you may notice a student reading a pre-written comment or question in class. This is the student’s attempt to comply with the requirements of the syllabus while managing the manifestations of his or her disability. In some instances, we also work with faculty to brainstorm ways to circumvent the disability without fundamentally altering the goals of the course; some students may benefit from videotaping their presentation or delivering their presentation to the instructor privately. As always, faculty should feel free to pose their suggestions to Academic Skills Center staff members or to the student directly, but should take care to do so in a way that maintains the student’s confidentiality.
In addition to disabilities that make speaking in public difficult, there are also some learning disabilities that make listening to and processing oral communication challenging. Students who have a disability related to taking in oral information may have difficulty listening and taking notes at the same time. For some of these students, it is difficult to quickly and efficiently differentiate between relevant and irrelevant details; because of the need for professors to move quickly through content, there is not sufficient time for these students to make the distinction. In other cases, the issue is the act of writing itself; for students who are diagnosed with dysgraphia, the act of writing the words they are hearing requires more than the normal amount of focus and energy, which could cause them to fall behind and miss important content, examples, or nuances. In both of these cases, the use of a peer note-taker and/or a recording device can alleviate the problem. If a student in your class utilizes one of these accommodations, you will be notified via the blue accommodations form and/or by a member of the Academic Skills Center.
Organization and Attention
Some of the biggest indicators of success in college are strong organizational skills, the ability to maintain focus, and good study skills. For students who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or certain other learning disabilities, these areas can be the most problematic. For example, you may have a student who is clearly capable of mastering the content, and you’ll see from his class participation that he has completed the necessary reading and has a good grasp on the course material. However, this student may routinely misplace papers or postpone starting projects until too close to the due date, eventually submitting work that is less thorough than you would expect. Students with ADHD often have difficulty accurately estimating how long a task will take to complete, may miss key points in oral directions, and often struggle with open-ended or unstructured assignments. It is important to note that for these problems to be termed as disabling, they must meet criteria that go beyond mere developmental immaturity.
While these difficulties are not easy to overcome, there are some things that faculty members can do to help students with these diagnoses increase their chances of success. Detailed syllabi that give clear due dates and descriptions of course papers and projects can be extremely helpful for all students, including those with attentional or organizational weaknesses. Because instructions that are delivered orally can be problematic for students with these diagnoses, written instructions are recommended; the same advice rings true when the plan of a course changes for any reason.