Some Notes on Teaching Students with Disabilities
A number of students at the University have documented disabilities. Others may be unaware of their disabilities or struggling with denial. Students with disabilities may have specific classroom needs. Reasonable accommodation of a documented disability is not optional: it is the student's right under federal law. I'd like to describe some of the disabilities you might encounter in teaching and offer suggestions on recognizing some disabilities you might encounter in teaching and offer suggestions on recognizing some disabilities and on teaching students with particular needs. This is by no means a comprehensive list of learning disabilities, nor have I addressed all types of disabilities. Students many have chronic health problems, arrested addictions, open or closed head injuries, and other problems.
Recognizing a Learning Disability
Learning disabilities affect how a student of average or above average intelligence processes information. The disability may interfere unpredictably with the student's ability to learn: problems may include difficulties retaining or comprehending information; difficulty with a particular kind of learning situation (e.g., understands class discussion better than the readings or vice versa); difficulty writing (e.g., problems with word retrieval, resulting in diffuse, wordy sentence structure as the student attempts to "write around" the word; extreme difficulty organizing or focussing thoughts; problems processing print, affecting the student's ability to proofread his or her work; problems sequencing, including difficulty understanding or producing grammatical sentence structure), etc.
I've attached a sheet ("Characteristics") which describes some common characteristics of students who may have disabilities. One important thing to look for is inconsistency- weaknesses or difficulties that don't square with your overall sense of the student. While it's easy to dismiss what you consider inappropriate behavior, it's worthwhile to investigate for the student's sake.
If any of the characteristics on the sheet seem to describe one of your students, you might want to try probing a bit. You could ask the student about his or her educational background, difficulties in other classes, medical history (for example, accidents or head injuries, or possible vision or hearing problems). Be aware that some students deny weaknesses or don't recognize them: if the student has had a mild hearing deficit his or her whole life, s/he may not realize what s/he's missing. If you have a strong sense that the student has a problem, urge the student to get help. Obviously, you'll want to respect the student's right to privacy and confidentiality. If you think the student may have a learning disability, refer him or her to the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center, B12 Brooks Hall (red stone building near the Rotunda featuring mames of various Great White Males). The phone number is 924-3139.
The Learning Needs and Evaluation Center provides services for students with known disabilities and other academic difficulties of uncertain origin. It also tests for learning disabilities. Staff may make diagnoses, refer the student outside the Center for further testing, or provide services (for for example, individual mentoring for students who need monitoring, note-takers for students who have difficulty taking notes in class for various reasons, transcribing classes for students with hearing or auditory processing problems, requesting study partners for students who need extra reinforcement of lecture or discussion material, etc.).
Some other resources you might want to know about include the Speech, Language, and Hearing Center for students who may have difficulty understanding and processing language, the Counseling Center or Student Mental Health for students who may be having psychological problems secondary to a specific learning disability, and the McGuffey Reading Center for students who may need extensive testing. The Learning Needs and Evaluation Center can help provide support and services to students with psychological problems or other difficulties that are affecting academic performance.
Teaching Students with Disabilities
Some students will have previously diagnosed disabilities. If they are seeking accommodation, they should get official forms from LNEC, which the students should then present to you. You may want to discuss the class requirements with the student when s/he presents the accommodation form: the student is often the best source of information of his/her needs. Students are sometimes hesitant to approach professors; it's a good idea to put an invitation to discuss disabilities and accommodations on your syllabus.
Some of the language-based problems (writing and reading difficulties, for example) will be uncommon in 200 or 300-level courses; they may very well show up in ENWR, though. I've described a few common problems below and some possible solutions.
1. Problem: difficulty organizing thoughts or assignments.
Potential solutions: teaching the student concept mapping or drawing idea wheels (visual diagrams which help the student to see how ideas and concepts are related. For more information, see "Semantic Mapping" by Johnson, Pittelman, and Heimlich in The Reading Teacher, April 1986); if the student is a stronger auditory learner, s/he may benefit from speaking into a tape recorder and then attempting an outline; tutoring, mentoring (both of which LNEC can help provide), study partners or study groups may be options.
2. Problem: difficulty sorting, i.e., determining what is the most important idea. Free-flowing discussions are great, but may leave some students confused about the overall thrust of the discussion.
Potential solutions: explain the purpose of the lecture or discussion up front. Provide closure at the end of discussion. Emphasize what you feel is important. Provide lists of key ideas or terms. Provide an outline of the lecture or discussion.
3. Problem: difficulty following directions. As we all know, instructions are infinitely susceptible to misconstruction. Be patient with students who ask for detailed clarification of instructions: very possibly, they may know they have a problem and want to save you and themselves some grief.
Potential trouble spots: exams, assignments, syllabi.
Potential solutions: explain the specific purpose of the assignment: that might eliminate some misconceptions off the bat. Be extremely clear in describing the course objectives and expectations--make sure that the student reads them and hears them. Ask the student for his/her oral interpretation of instructions--this can clear up misinterpretations immediately.
4. Problem: difficulty integrating information.
Potential trouble spots: cumulative finals, longer papers.
Potential solutions: providing some sort of cognitive mapping or linkages (e.g., time lines or different systems of categories). I realize that, as heirs of formalism, we've been trained to think that God is in the details. Remember that the student may have trouble thinking inductively and may get distracted by the sheer weight of detail. Emphasize these general categories or concepts and show how you've worked inductively from the text to the categories.
5. Problem: difficulty with processing, i.e. problems with processing auditory information, like lectures, or visual material, like text, graphs, illustrations, flow charts, etc.
Potential trouble spots for auditory processing problems: rapid-fire lectures, unclear or inaudible speech, exams that rely heavily on lecture materials, oral instructions.
Potential solutions for auditory problems: giving students a few seconds to paraphrase a difficult concept into note form; enlisting note-takers (if the student is a client, LNEC will send a memo to you asking you to recruit note-takers); requesting study partners to discuss the material after class with the student
(LNEC will also enlist your help to find study partners); illustrating lectures when possible, e.g., with slides or film. Be aware of different resources the student can use to reinforce the material, e.g., visual reinforcement like books or film or illustrations.
Potential trouble spots for visual processing problems: inadequately (or glaringly) lit rooms, last-minute reading assignments.
Potential solutions for visual problems: resources such as tapes, adequate class discussion, tutoring, study partner.
6. Problem: difficulty reading, e.g., slow reading rate, poor comprehension, difficulty understanding and pronouncing new words.
Potential trouble spots: directions on essays and exams, lengthy exam instructions, in-class requests for spontaneous oral reading.
Potential solutions: clear, concise directions; availability to answer seemingly obvious questions about the exam; availability to discuss assignments; avoidance of spontaneous oral reading--give the student some warning and chance to prepare.
7. Problem: difficulty writing, e.g., spelling problems, syntactical problems, difficulty taking notes, difficulty organizing ideas, illegible handwriting.
Potential trouble spots: spontaneous writing assignments, exams. Such students may have a tough time in ENWR.
Potential solutions: make the student generate (and use) a checklist of his or her most common errors, checking for one kind of error at a time; forgive spelling and grammar errors on spontaneous writing assignments (pop quizzes, in-class writing); teach the student such strategies as cognitive mapping (e.g., idea wheels, back-outlining); allow use of microcomputer when possible.
8. Problem: hyperactivity, attention deficit.
Manifestations: way-out questions, distractibility, extreme frustration, inattention, impulsive behavior.
Potential trouble spots: too much stimulation--too many activities going on at once in the room, e.g., several discussion groups; a lot of information on an exam page.
Potential solutions: structured expectations and classroom activity, exam questions spread out over several pages, forced breaks over twenty minutes (such students tend to do well in short spurts).
9. Problem: word retrieval or memory problems.
Potential trouble spots: exam essay questions demanding recall of detailed information.
Potential solutions: permitting exam cue cards listing the names of key characters or terms, more time on exams for retrieval.
Students with Sensory Impairment
1. Students with Hearing Impairment. Obviously, students with hearing impairments are going to face certain difficulties in classroom discussions and during lectures. Herewith some problems and possible solutions.
A. Understanding the Speaker
If the student is relying on lip-reading to follow a lecture, make sure to face the class at all times when you are talking. You should not do any of the following:
* turn to the board as you're talking.
• pace back and forth--the student needs to see your face.
stand with your back to the window or light source.
If you need to write something, you may want to ask a student to participate by dictating as the student writes on the board. If you have a beard, keep it neatly trimmed--the student will be watching your mouth closely and needs to see it clearly. Don't over-enunciate or exaggerate lip movement: your behavior may be well-intentioned, but it's not helpful. Do repeat comments or questions that other students may have asked: the hearingimpaired student may not have seen the speaker. A round table is preferred for class discussion. If the room is furnished with bolted-down chairs that face in one direction, or is otherwise unsuitable, contact LNEC: we can arrange a change. If you're teaching a lecture class, have the student sit up front. If the student uses a sign interpreter, remember to speak to and make eye contact with the student, not the interpreter.
You may want to provide the student with an outline of the course or lecture, if you have one. Allow taping and transcribing.
B. Participating in the Class/Getting the Material
If the student is getting his/her lectures transcribed, remember that there is a lag time with transcriptions: it takes about two to three days to type up the lecture.
If the course is discussion-oriented, the student may have difficulties following the various speakers. One possible solution is to have the student meet with you to go over class discussion after the discussion. One teacher enlisted a different student to take notes during each class; the note-taker would sit next to the hearing-impaired student, who could then follow the discussion as it was taking place and participate.
2. Students with Visual Impairment
• If the student has a guide dog, don't pet, call, feed or otherwise distract it. If the student is in work mode, so is the dog.
• Remember that you have less leeway in planning your syllabus. If you have any idea that you'll have a print-impaired student in your class, select your texts as soon as possible. The student will need to order the books from Recording for the Blind as soon as possible. If Recording for the Blind doesn't have a recording of the material, we may need to record the material ourselves: LNEC runs an extensive reading program for this purpose. Remember that students reading books on tape are reading about seven pages an hour. Don't assign readings at the last minute: we need to order or record the readings, and that takes time.
• If you're assembling a packet, please make sure the packet is numbered consistently--you may need to renumber the packet, providing consecutive numbers to make it easier for the student to find pages on the tape.
• Make sure the discussion is within the student's hearing-a round table is preferable.
• Describe what you're doing at all times: if you're writing or drawing something on the board, explain in detail what you're doing.