What are Common Challenges and Successful Strategies?
How Can You Create an Inclusive Course Environment? Be Proactive!
The transition to college, for both traditional and non-traditional students, is experienced differently depending on the student's personal strengths or the nature and severity of the disability. Remember, a disability label itself does not define a student's strengths or challenges, nor does it define the specific accommodation an individual may need. This can seem confusing as disability labels are commonly used to access a range of accessibility services.
The first step in retaining all students in college courses is creating communities that are safe and supportive socially and intellectually. When you adopt a philosophy of fostering an inclusive environment in your courses, you will increase your own confidence that your teaching can reach all students and contribute to their success in your course.
Types of Challenges and Strategies
There are a number of ways the disabilities can manifest. Familiarizing yourself with the broad categories can help you prepare supportive practices.
The majority of students with disabilities in your courses will not have obvious physical characteristics but will have hidden or invisible disabilities such as a specific learning disability that may manifest itself in slower reading or comprehension, difficulties with written expression, or occasionally in mathematical calculations or problem-solving. These could interfere with the student's ability to complete assignments according to the syllabus schedule, take notes, or produce written products. Other hidden disabilities include attention deficits that may interfere with recall of information or organization. Students may have mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression which may contribute to procrastination in starting work on assignments or fear of classroom assessments such as tests. Lastly, chronic health issues (e.g., diabetes, cancer, arthritis) can also constitute a hidden disability that can lead to interruption in class attendance and affect performance. Videotaping your lectures, providing class notes, giving study guides for exams, providing grading rubrics, and/or offering tutorials as part of your teaching practice demonstrates your proactive stance in creating an inclusive and accessible environment in your courses. These practices benefit all students in your course.
Many courses require active participation by students. For some students, their disability may include challenges with self-regulation or social skills (e.g., Autism, Attention Deficit, Mental Health). Class participation and group work may require more proactive facilitation by you, as the instructor. Consider an inclusive practice of encouraging students to exchange phone and email information with another classmate. This provides a peer resource contact, assignment management support, or potential study partner.
For people with physical disabilities, mobility and physical access are necessary accommodations. Think about how heavy your classroom door is to open. A person using a wheelchair or with limited strength may find it difficult to enter the classroom, so perhaps you could prop your door open at the beginning and end of class.
If your classroom has stadium seating, then you will want to make sure there is an accessible work space on the ground floor. Labs will need to have an accessible space that allows the person who uses a wheelchair to physically and safely use lab equipment. If you have a wheelchair user in your class, there are some etiquette tips to remember. Think of the wheelchair as part of that person's physical space and do not assist without first asking if the person wants help. When speaking directly with the individual who uses a wheelchair or motorized scooter for more than a few minutes, try to find a place where you can sit (not crouch) and be at eye level with that person.
For a student who is deaf and who uses an interpreter, please speak to the student, not to the interpreter. Students who are hearing impaired but not deaf, may be accommodated by your wearing a microphone that transmits directly to their hearing aid; many classrooms now have speakers in the room. If you use videos or other audio materials, make sure that captioning is available or a transcription of the video is provided. Captioning actually benefits many students with and without disabilities.
This video points out the benefits of captioning not only for students, faculty, and staff who have hearing challenges but also those for whom English is a second language.
Consider the rate at which you speak; you will probably need to slow down. Some students with hearing impairments use speech or lip reading, but not all do. If the student uses speech-reading, then think about where the student sits and where you stand to ensure that your face and mouth can be seen. If you write on a whiteboard, you will need to talk before or after turning your back to write (or better yet, use a document camera). If you have a beard or mustache, the student may have more difficulty with speech-reading. Keep your hands or other objects away from your mouth. Unless requested, do not raise your voice.
Students who have vision impairments (e.g. low or limited vision) or who are legally blind will need audio and oral accommodations and support. Tactile support is also crucial for some students. Students with vision impairments may need large print copies of your exams or handouts or on-line access to programs that read the text aloud. Book readers may be provided by the office that coordinates disability services.
Many publishers are moving to electronic books which have the potential to include multiple media within the text. If the student uses Braille (note that not all people who are blind use Braille), there is usually a Braille printer available in the office coordinating disability services or in the library; you may be required to send your documents to them for printing. In this era of 3-D printers, you are able to construct materials that can be manipulated or explored by touch (check out www.thingiverse.com). Videos or visual demonstrations as well as presentations can be made accessible based on the student's support needs.
You will need to identify yourself when speaking to the person who is legally blind, introducing other students who join the conversation. If you have ever been on a conference call where multiple people are talking and you do not know their voices, proper etiquette is to announce, "This is ___," each time you speak. Encourage all students who participate in class to adopt that practice as well.
If you have a student who has a speech disability (e.g. stuttering, articulation, motor impairment such as cerebral palsy, stroke), it is important to model patience for your class by allowing the student to take the time needed to communicate. Do not complete sentences for them. If you do not understand what they have said, paraphrase what you did hear, and ask him/her for clarification. You and the student may agree to use notes if you cannot understand the student's speech.
Occasionally you may have a student whose disability requires the use of a service animal, which is defined under ADA as a dog that performs tasks directly related to the person's disability. In addition to assisting people who are blind or have visual impairments or physical disabilities, other individuals may legitimately need the assistance of a service animal. For example, a person with diabetes may use a service animal to determine when their blood sugar levels are too high or someone with a seizure disorder may have a dog that senses an oncoming seizure. Your school may have a "No Pets on Campus" policy, but that policy must be modified to allow a service animal (US Department of Justice, 2015). You can expect the student to maintain control of the service animal, and you should not pet or approach the animal without the express permission of the handler. Some students may require a personal assistant to accompany them to class; remember that these individuals work for the student and all communication goes to the student first.
Technology has opened doors for individuals with disabilities in all walks of life. Technology also changes almost daily. You will want to find out how to make sure your technology is accessible (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, course management systems), and necessity will guide you to find technology that promotes accessibility. Technology supports students who have a variety of learning differences. For example, software on smartphones and on computers offer calculators; audible lab equipment can be obtained to help those who have difficulty seeing or translating the written word or equations; and graphing software can show multiple visual representations. In addition, word processing programs offer increasing accessibility options such as spell check, enlarged print, dictation, and text-to-speech; and virtual labs and virtual field trips provide access when transportation or other physical barriers prevent participation. Videoing class presentations and posting the video on your course management system offers meaningful redundancy for students who may need repeated experiences with lectures.
Abou-Zahra, S., Eggert, E., Henry, S. L., Leiserson, A. B., Rush, S., & Egan, B. (2015). Guidance on how to create websites that meet WCAG. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/tutorials/
AIM Commission. (2006). Report of the advisory commission on accessible instructional materials in postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/aim/meeting/aim-report.pdf
DO-IT. (2014) [Video file]. Captions: Improving access to postsecondary education. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/doit/videos/index.php?vid=59
Henry, S. L., & Abou-Zahra, S. (2012). How to make presentations accessible to all. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/training/accessible
Job Accommodation Network. (n.d.). Accommodating microscope users with motor impairment(s). Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20170210004307/https://askjan.org/soar/industry/microscope.html
U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (June, 2015). Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html