Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching students with disabilities

Beyond accommodations

While it is true that when a student enters your class with a letter from Disability Resource Services, you are required to accommodate the student, proactively considering students with disabilities before you receive a request can save you a great deal of time and improve your teaching for all students.

First, consider disabilities from a broader perspective:

Disability is about how bodies interact with existing environments. So, rather than waiting for a student to request an accommodation, considering ahead of time how your teaching practices might impact students with different sorts of bodies and abilities can:

  1. Deepen your view of how you teach, opening up additional questions and practices to consider
  2. Save you (and the student) time in making the course accessible when you do receive a request for accommodations
  3. Provide a more inclusive classroom because students can see that they’ve been considered in your approach to teaching, not as an afterthought, or exception

Because having a disability can have social, political and historical features for individuals and groups, it can be a part of someone’s social identity, similar to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc. Thus, considering your own attitudes about people with disabilities and how people with disabilities are represented in your course content can help to make your course more inclusive for students. The social model of disability, for example, doesn’t view disability as simply a medical trait or something that needs “fixing” and considers  negative social attitudes and discrimination as the major barriers for people with disabilities.

Disabilities take many forms, some of which are visible or occasionally visible, where others are not.

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are about 56.7 million people living with disabilities in the U.S., nearly everyone has some “connection” to disability. It’s a minority group that anyone might join at any time.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics notes that nearly 11% of college undergraduates in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 reported having a disability. Many of those students have “invisible” disabilities, such as learning disabilities.

Secondly, proactively adopt pedagogical practices that support students with disabilities as a part of your approach to teaching

Build accessibility into your course design from the start

  • Draw from Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for all aspects of course design so your course can be accessible by all students. UDL principles support effective teaching and can save you and your students’ time when an accommodation is needed.
  • Reconsider your course content to:
    • Highlight a diversity of views and voices on issues related to disability;
    • Include Disability Studies in your curriculum where relevant;
    • Remove negative portrayals.
  • Cassady Glass Hastings, undergraduate instructor at the college of educationReview the accessibility of your course technologies and products. Learn how to make all documents, videos, and websites accessible through UW Accessible Technology.
  • Post course materials, assignments, and deadlines with advance notice. This allows students time to plan for accommodations and workload. Where possible, offer flexibility on assignments and deadlines.

Promote a productive learning environment

  • Set the tone on the first day and in your syllabus by communicating that all students are welcome and taken seriously as learners, including those with disabilities.
  • Clarify your policies on attendance and late assignments with explicit and accessible instructions for how students may follow these policies. Remind students often during the quarter of the procedures for applying for extensions and extenuating circumstances.
  • Communicate your availability for student concerns. Let students know when and how they can contact your and/or your teaching staff to discuss any problems or concerns.
  • Share campus resources available to students.
  • Establish ground rules for honest and respectful dialogue:
  • Follow up with students who are not attending class and/or struggling with their performance in class. Contact them individually, be direct, express concern, and offer to meet to discuss. Don’t ask what’s going on or what issues they have.

Plan learning activities, assignments, and exams

  • Plan assignments so that students can work toward the same goal in different ways. All students don’t need to do the same activity in order to reach a particular learning goal. Having students approach the material or assignment in different ways can lead to productive class discussions where students learn from each other.
  • Draw from UW’s DO-IT resources on learning activities in specific contexts (such as in computer labs, art studios, or writing assignments). Review assignments and materials for universal design.
  • Use multiple formats for instruction. Students learn in different ways. Use oral, verbal, textual, and kinesthetic means to engage all students. Try to overlap approaches:
    • Make outlines and/or recordings available for lectures
    • Orally explain all printed assignments
  • Be open to (and prepared for) alternative assignments. For example, some students may have difficulties with presentation and public speaking.  Where possible and feasible, offer alternatives or facilitate less intimidating circumstances. Other students may have last-minute health issues that cause them to miss an exam or presentation. Plan ahead for the type of alternative formats of exams or assignments you will accept.

UW resources for instructors

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) provides online resources for instructors: 

Disability Resources for Students (DRS) offers advice, consultation, and services for students and some online resources for instructors: