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Teaching a Diverse Student Body: Practical Strategies for Enhancing our Students’ Learning

Students with Disabilities


Students with disabilities at the University constitute a population as diverse as the total student body. As intelligent and academically prepared as other students at U.Va., they clearly have special needs that may require your knowledge and understanding as well as the support of the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center (LNEC) (243-5180). Disabilities include those related to chronic health conditions (for example, diabetes, HIV positive, sickle cell anemia), neurological conditions (such as seizure disorders and head injuries), and specific learning disabilities (for instance, dysgraphia, dyslexia, dyslogia). Some students have psychiatric disorders or emotional problems resulting from childhood sexual abuse, arrested addictions, and biochemical imbalances. Other students have vision or hearing deficits or mobility impairments, including temporary ones due to sports injuries.1
Like other U.Va. students, students with disabilities are generally industrious and motivated, although some must take longer than average to finish their degree. With reasonable understanding and accommodation on your part, these students can meet degree standards, enter professions, and achieve in graduate and professional programs with the same degree of success as nondisabled students. The following sections will help you identify characteristics of students with disabilities, know where and how to refer them to additional resources, and, most importantly, help you adapt your teaching methods to ensure equal opportunities for all your students. This chapter replicates and expands upon material found in Teaching at the University of Virginia.


Keep in mind that the task of managing any disability drains students of time and energy, and their health routines are critically important. Disabilities also interfere with daily living skills. Some students with disabilities cannot take notes while trying to listen; others cannot read at a rate commensurate with their general intelligence. Still others have great difficulty simply getting their work on paper because of trouble with eye-hand coordination, apraxia, or arthritis. Students with disabilities may have low self-concepts or be socially isolated. Or, they may repeatedly get lost or be unable to drive because they cannot coordinate information from several senses quickly enough. And, of course, students with disabilities also encounter generic student predicaments: perfectionism, pressures associated with family expectations, family responsibilities, and so on.

Reading what sounds like a litany of problems may provoke in you one of the common reactions to disabilities, reactions you need to recognize if only to spot them among your non-disabled students. Some people feel awkward or flustered when near a person with a physical disability: “Should I open the door, or would that be condescending?” Others feel an overwhelming sense of pity and a need to take care of the person. Fear is another common reaction, including the irrational fear of the same disability attacking you. Still others suspect that people with disabilities are receiving “special breaks” and aren’t pulling their own weight. Such negative feelings constitute one of the greatest constraints on people struggling to overcome disabilities.

Feelings of discomfort and prejudice toward people with disabilities disappear, however, when people get to know them as individuals.


To succeed, students with disabilities require others to be creative and flexible to their special needs. Given a documented diagnosed disability (with information from the student’s Academic Dean or the LNEC), you may need to accommodate certain students by modifying accessibility to the classroom, your lecture, or course materials. The reasonable accommodations needed by each student will vary according to his/her disability. In general, these accommodations are not difficult for the instructor to carry out, nor should they change basic course requirements. Occasionally, students with disabilities who are qualified for special support choose not to seek it; you are not responsible for accommodating a disability that the student does not declare or that you cannot verify.
Encouraging your students to let you know of any disability early in the semester will ensure ample time to make any necessary adjustments. One way to signal your willingness to accommodate students with disabilities is to include a statement on your syllabus similar to the following one recommended by the LNEC:

All students with special needs requiring accommodations should present the appropriate paperwork from the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center (LNEC). It is the student’s responsibility to present this paperwork in a timely fashion and follow up with the instructor about the accommodations being offered. Accommodations for test-taking (e.g., extended time) should be arranged at least X days before an exam.

The confidential paperwork from the LNEC will typically include a short list of recommended accommodations. Many are obvious: your classroom must be accessible to students in wheelchairs, for instance, or you must allow guide dogs, interpreters, peer note-takers assigned, tape recorders, or flexibility with the number of excused absences. Others may seem less obvious but are easily accomplished. If, for example, meeting due dates is a problem for the student, you can negotiate reasonable schedules for completing work. In the following sections you’ll find other suggestions for accommodation grouped by type of disability. Please note that these lists of suggestions are not exhaustive-the options for reasonable accommodations are unlimited. The LNEC can provide additional ways to address specific disabilities and/or situations, and if special arrangements are required, you can contact your school’s Associate or Assistant Dean.

1 For the information in this chapter, I rely on several sources, including LNEC staff members and works listed in Appendix II and on the Works Cited page. Because much of the information comes from a combination of sources, only direct quotes are cited in this chapter to promote readability.