Effective Communication with Students Who Have Communication Disorders


At the end of this presentation, participants will be able to

  • summarize the rights and responsibilities, potential contributions, and needs of students with disabilities;
  • discuss departmental and individual legal rights and responsibilities for ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students in their programs;
  • list a range of disabling conditions that can affect communication in courses;
  • list strategies for communicating with students who have disabilities using technology, trained support staff, and instructor creativity; and
  • describe campus resources available to assist in the provision of appropriate academic accommodations to students with disabilities.


Approximately 60-90 minutes.


A faculty member or TA who has successfully taught students with disabilities that affect oral and auditory communication or someone from the campus unit providing services for students with disabilities. It may be possible to arrange for a student to co-present. At an appropriate time during the presentation, the student could describe the impact of his disability on communication and effective communication strategies.


  • Select the presenter(s).
  • Develop presentation outline and activities using the "Sample Script" provided in this section and the ideas listed in the Presentation Tips section of this notebook.
  • Create presentation slides from provided templates.
  • Add the contact information for campus resources to the "Resources" slide and to printed publications as appropriate.
  • Photocopy the handout template Effective Communication: Faculty and Students with Disabilities. Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session (see page 189-191 for examples) or create your own.
  • Add a link on your department's website to The Faculty Room at www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty.

Equipment and Tools

  • Video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • Handout (Effective Communication: Faculty and Students with Disabilities)
  • Presentation evaluation instrument

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handout.
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Discuss communication disabilities and accommodation strategies.
  5. Discuss case studies.
  6. Note campus resources.
  7. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult:

Sample Script

Today we'll be discussing effective strategies for communicating with students who have disabilities.

The objectives of this presentation are to:

  • describe the rights and responsibilities, potential contributions, and needs of students with disabilities
  • summarize campus departmental and rights and responsibilities for ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students
  • describe disabling conditions that can affect communication in courses
  • discuss strategies for communicating with students who have communication disorders
  • describe campus resources available to assist in the provision of academic accommodations

Communication and Learning in Postsecondary Settings

The number of individuals with disabilities seeking postsecondary education has increased and the federal government has made it clear that institutions must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that otherwise qualified students with disabilities have access to educational opportunities offered to other students. With advancements in technology, state and federal mandates, and improved awareness about disability issues, students with a wide range of disabilities have better access to postsecondary educational programs. They are part of the student body in every institution of higher learning.

Postsecondary courses often use a traditional lecture format. Even distance education programs that have emerged in the last decade rely heavily on lectures (e.g., audio or video presentations) and discussion. Lectures and classroom interaction can present significant barriers to some students. Students who, for one reason or another, have difficulty listening, speaking, or understanding are at a disadvantage in academic courses. Without accommodations, it might be impossible for a student who cannot hear, speak, or understand spoken language to pursue an education. Developing an awareness of how communication can pose barriers to learning, as well as strategies that can help remove these barriers, may help to maximize learning opportunities in your classroom.

Disabilities that affect communication include hearing impairments, auditory processing disabilities (typically resulting from brain injuries or specific learning disabilities), and speech impairments. These disabilities represent a significant part of the postsecondary student population. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education (2006b), 11.3% of all students attending a postsecondary institution reported a disability.

The information we'll cover today is included in your handout Effective Communication: Faculty and Students with Disabilities.

We'll review issues of legal rights and responsibilities. I'll provide information on hearing and speech disorders and other disabilities that can affect communication in courses. Examples of accommodation strategies and resources available on our campus and on the Internet will also be presented. The overall goal is to enhance your ability to communicate effectively with students who have disabilities that affect expressive or receptive communication.

What are some of your experiences working with students who have disabilities? Have you worked with a student with a disability that affected his communication with you or fellow students? What strategies were successful? What didn't work?

[This interaction should encourage active participation and help you understand what participants know and don't know before you continue with the presentation. Try to use the ideas from participants in later discussions. Be sure to revisit their experiences by the end of the presentation.]

Legal Issues

Let's talk about our legal obligations.

According to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, "no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity." Most postsecondary institutions that receive federal funds are covered under Section 504. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 reinforces and extends Section 504 requirements to all postsecondary institutions and other organizations that provide services to the public.

"Otherwise qualified," with respect to postsecondary educational services, means "a person who meets academic standards requisite to admission or participation in the education program or activity, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies or practices; the removal of architectural, communication or transportation barriers; or the provision of auxiliary aids and services."

"Person with a disability" means "any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment."

In summary, federal legislation requires that we accept otherwise qualified students with disabilities into academic programs.

We must work with students who disclose disabilities to identify and implement reasonable accommodations that will ensure equal access to the educational opportunities we offer to other qualified students. Experienced staff in our disabled student services office can assist instructors in understanding the effects of disabilities on the learning process. The instructor, campus disabled student services staff, and the student with disabilities can work together to identify and implement appropriate accommodation strategies.

Communication Disabilities

I will discuss examples of how students with some disabilities communicate and learn. Then we will discuss academic accommodations that might be suitable in these situations. I emphasize that these are only examples. The combination of learning styles, abilities, and disabilities are unique to the individual.

Communication can be classified as "expressive" or "receptive." Expressive communication is the ability to produce speech. Receptive communication is the ability to understand speech.

Students who have difficulty communicating in class include those who are deaf or hard of hearing, have speech impairments, have difficulty processing auditory information because of a learning disability, or have physical impairments that affect their speech or language. Often these students require extensive time or effort to communicate and use teaching aids, augmentative communication devices, and assistants. Although some of these conditions are obvious, many are not. A student with a mild hearing loss or a language processing disability does not appear different from other students.

Students with the same type of impairment or diagnosis may perform similar tasks with different degrees of success; they may require different accommodations in order to participate in classroom activities. For example, one deaf student might be much better at group discussion and participation than another deaf student who excels at written exams.

Because of the diverse impact similar disabilities have on each student, there are no standard accommodation strategies that work with everyone. Flexibility and creativity are key to providing accommodations. The goal is that each student has access to the course content and for you, the instructor, to be able to assess what the student has learned. The student may have developed successful coping strategies during high school or other previous learning environments. Discuss with the student what has worked or not worked in the past before deciding on the best accommodation strategies for your class or program.

Hearing Impairments

First, we'll discuss challenges and accommodations for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. We'll answer the following questions.

  • What do the terms "hearing impaired," "hard of hearing," and "deaf" mean?
  • Why is the letter "D" in "deaf" sometimes capitalized?
  • What are some of the communication challenges and strategies of students with hearing impairments?

[Teaching activity suggestion: For the first sentence below, speak normally. Gradually, speak quieter. During the last sentence, just move your mouth without using sounds. After the audience is silent or wondering for a moment, restate using normal volume. Discuss reactions with the audience.]

"Hearing impairment" is a generic term that includes the entire range of hearing loss, from mild to profound. Hearing loss is generally measured by an audiogram, which determines the loudness (decibel level) and frequency (hertz) at which a person can and cannot hear. A student with a measured level of hearing loss could be categorized as hearing impaired, but this term does little to describe the specific level of hearing loss.

People who are hard of residual hearing rely a great deal on their residual ability to hear. Most hard-of-hearing students can follow one-on-one conversations but have a more difficult time communicating in groups or understanding lectures. Hard-of-hearing students might only be able to hear parts of audio information. They usually wear hearing aids and use technology aids to amplify and clarify sounds. They may be able to connect their hearing aids to output devices. For example, a computer usually has a place to attach earphones, as do some video and audio players. Some students who are hard of hearing may prefer seeing printed text or using a sign language interpreter. Some use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary communication method.

Deaf students have a very limited or no ability to understand sounds, even with amplification. Film narration, lectures, and group communication may be especially difficult to follow. They generally depend on visual information to understand content. Visual information includes sign language, printed text, handwritten notes, captioning, a computer screen, and speech (lip) reading. Although some deaf students can speak, many do not use speech to express their ideas, especially if their primary communication method is sign language. Instead, they write, type, or use sign language to communicate with others.

Most students with hearing impairments experience fatigue as they watch intensely or listen hard. Consequently, students who have hearing impairments may have difficulty with lectures or activities lasting more than two hours.

When the term "Deaf" is capitalized in literature, it ascribes a cultural identity to the group, much like an ethnicity. Although those who choose to affiliate significantly with other ASL users as members of "Deaf culture" identify with the ASL language community, this affiliation does not necessarily mean that the person is profoundly deaf.

Auditory Processing Disabilities

Other types of disabilities, besides hearing impairments, affect communication with others. Next, we'll discuss auditory processing disabilities.

A student who has a brain injury or a specific learning disability may speak and hear sounds quite well. However, if this student has an auditory processing disability, he or she might not readily or efficiently understand the meaning of the words spoken by an instructor. Accents, fast pace, and new terminology can further complicate processing of the information. This student may be able to read written text or understand visual information that is inaccessible to him aurally.

A student with difficulty processing auditory information may not be able to follow extensive verbal instructions or lectures but may perform well on manual and written tasks. He or she may not be able to fully participate in a group discussion or question and answer session without appropriate accommodations.

Speech Impairments

Now let's discuss speech impairments and how they affect communication.

Although some students might hear and understand everything that is happening in your classroom, their contribution may be limited because they cannot participate through speech. For example, students who have cerebral palsy or certain types of brain injuries may experience difficulties making their ideas clear through speech. Sometimes only close friends and family members can understand their speech. There is a great deal of stigma associated with speech impairments, perhaps in part because of a misconception that intelligence is somehow correlated with clarity of speech.

People who have speech impairments may choose not to use their own voices if they expect they will not be understood. Some use computer-based communication systems that allow them to communicate with a synthesized voice. With these devices, students can complete oral exams, deliver presentations, and participate in group discussions.

Other Communication Disabilities

Although most of the origins of communication-related disabilities are speech, language, or hearing impairments, there are other reasons a student might have difficulty communicating.A student with a phobia, an anxiety disorder, or autism may take extended time to begin speaking in public. The same student might also experience a great deal of difficulty answering a question posed to him in a small group situation. Some students who have chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, may simply need extra time to express themselves verbally. Side effects of medications can also impact spontaneity in speaking. Even students without diagnosed disabilities may be shy or unwilling to participate verbally in class, even though they comprehend the information presented.

Accommodation Strategies

Communication in class can present minor or major barriers to students with a range of disabilities. Making classes more accessible to these students can also help other students learn. We'll discuss some general strategies that can facilitate classroom communication.

  • Add a statement to your syllabus inviting students who have disabilities to discuss their needs and accommodation strategies with you. Read the statement out loud to the class.
  • Ask a student who has identified him or herself as having a specific disability to share with you what strategies have worked and what accommodations will be useful to him or her in your class.
  • Use disability support services available on campus as a resource. The student should provide documentation of disabilities to this office. You may receive a letter from this office discussing reasonable accommodations for the student.

Here are some specific strategies that can minimize the effects of a communication-related disability of a student in your class.

  • If you plan to lecture or use primarily auditory delivery, ensure that you use adequate visual support, such as slides with a video projector.
  • Provide printed handouts with key content before or at the beginning of class.
  • If your classroom activities involve verbal participation, provide alternatives or support for students who have difficulty speaking. For example, the student could prepare the printed materials needed for a group presentation or project.
  • Select course materials and media early so that if captioning or alternate formats are required, they can be procured in a timely manner.
  • Use multiple or alternative methods for evaluating student achievement. Provide different ways to test learning and submit assignments (e.g., written or oral formats, projects, in-class participation).

Sign Language and Oral Interpreters

Some students who have hearing impairments require the presence of an interpreter at the front of the classroom. A professional interpreter is trained to translate spoken English (or another language) into sign language. If the student cannot speak, the interpreter will also reverse interpret, or voice, what the student signs. Sign language interpreters often work in pairs so that they can take turns to prevent physical and mental fatigue. The disability support services office typically schedules sign language interpreters for students.

If the student does not know sign language but needs to be able to lip-read consistently, an oral interpreter is sometimes used. Oral interpreters are trained professionals who understand which words are visible on the lips and make spoken language more accessible to a lip-reading deaf student. Sometimes oral interpreters fingerspell or gesture to help the student follow conversations.

Interpreters are not allowed to add or change anything they interpret. However, they must sometimes ask the instructor for clarification or repetition of a word or phrase in order to provide the student with accurate and complete class content.

When a student who does not speak has a question, adequate time needs to be given so that he can sign the question to the interpreter. Time also needs to be taken following your answer to allow the student to seek further clarification.

Normal pacing of presented content is usually appropriate when an interpreter is used. However, speak slower when reading passages out loud and when using technical terms. Discuss options with the disabled student services office for training and orientation of interpreters. It is also recommended that you take time before the presentation to discuss presentation content and other relevant issues with the interpreters. Sign language interpreters are there not only for the student to understand what classmates and instructors are saying, but also for the instructor and fellow students to understand the student who is deaf.

Captioned Media

When showing films or videos, it is important to use a captioned version that provides access to the audio content using text. Captioning, in contrast to a transcript, has the advantage of presenting both video and text together so that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can follow the video. In addition, students who are learning English as a second language benefit from seeing the English subtitles while hearing the audio. If you are not able to get a captioned version of the media, it might be necessary to provide a transcript or printed summary of the spoken information, or to use a sign language interpreter to translate the presentation. Students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have difficulty processing spoken language might need extra time to process this information as they cannot watch the video or film and read the text or watch an interpreter at the same time. For them, putting the video online or on reserve in the library provides the option for them to watch it multiple times.

Real-Time Captioning

Court reporting techniques have been adapted to classroom use so that people who rely on text to communicate have instant access to spoken words. Real-time captioning requires a trained professional to enter what is spoken into computer-based equipment; the system presents text on a monitor for the student to read. Sometimes these systems also provide a notetaking service by giving the student an electronic or printed version of the presentation or group discussion. These systems are particularly useful for students who are deaf, yet for whom written English is a strength.

Amplification, Headphones, and Assistive Listening Devices

In large lecture halls a microphone and normal amplification might assist many students. People who have difficulty processing sounds because of hearing loss or learning disabilities may benefit from using headphones, which directly transmit sound to the ears and block out environmental noise. People who are hard of hearing may benefit from assistive listening devices such as FM systems, infrared transmissions, and loops. These devices are designed to bring sound directly to the ear or hearing aid from a transmitted location. Students using headphone or hearing aid that is receiving from the microphone do not hear background noise or comments from other students. Therefore, for these students, it is important to repeat questions or comments directly into the microphone. Repeating questions, comments, and key points is beneficial for students with and without hearing impairments.

Notetakers and Copies of Notes

For some students, listening requires extraordinary energy. Intense concentration is needed to follow the sign language interpreter, to lip-read the instructor, or to process what is being heard through an FM system. These students are often unable to write notes as well as maintain attention to the spoken information. Therefore, it is important for these students to have access to printed notes. Student notetakers are often recruited and trained to provide the student who has a disability with detailed notes. Sometimes instructors give the student printed or electronic copies of lecture notes.

Visual Aids, Visual Reinforcements, and Visual Warning Systems

Although it benefits most students, the use of visual information is a specific accommodation strategy for students with auditory processing difficulties. Visual examples, icons, diagrams, colored charts, and illustrations often reinforce information delivered verbally. These materials could include online resources as well as printed handouts.

For students who cannot hear, it is also important that any auditory warning signals for fire, smoke, or other purposes be made available in a visual form (for example, using a strobe light). This is especially important for students working in isolated labs or study rooms.

Written Assignments, Written Exams, and Written or Alternative Lab Work

Students with speech disabilities can complete most required homework as assigned. When an accommodation is arranged, it is often needed for the process of delivering the assignment. For example, a student who was expected to make an oral presentation might be allowed to use an interpreter or hand in a written assignment. An exam that is normally given orally could be redesigned in written form. Work that is normally done using multimedia might be done in writing. Make sure that assignments and tests assess the students' abilities and knowledge, not their hearing and speech.

Email and Written Communication

Classroom comments and student questions can be made via email or handwritten notes if verbal communication in class is difficult. These options are especially useful if anxiety, voice production, or communication speed is a problem.

Communication Assistance, Peer Support, and Extended Time

A third party might be able to provide support to a person with a communication disability. This person might be someone trained to interpret a speech pattern, read the communication board of a non-speaker, or simply help a person make words more clear. Sometimes a student with a disability may benefit from a peer or fellow student providing this support. However, this strategy should only be used with prior agreement from both students. Never put students on the spot or breach confidentiality by identifying a student with a disability in need of support.

Extended time is often needed for communicating orally or in writing if devices are used. Extended time accommodations for assignments or exams are typically arranged through the disabled student services office on campus.

Seating, Pacing, and Alternative Arrangements

Most students with hearing impairments will want to sit near the front of the room to lip-read an instructor, read real-time captioning, or watch an interpreter. In situations with circles or other nontraditional seating arrangements, the student may have to sit across from the instructor with the interpreter or real-time captioner sitting in the middle. Students may also prefer to sit away from doors or windows that bring in outside noise. A student using an assistant will need an extra seat for this person. A student using technical aids may need to sit near power outlets or close to a specific piece of equipment.

If possible, arrange for a slower-paced question and answer period or discussion within class time. Simply slowing the pace slightly can facilitate the participation of some people with communication disabilities. You could also provide alternatives such as smaller groups, seminars, or one-on-one opportunities so that the benefits of interaction are not lost for the student who cannot participate in large class discussions.

As you may have noticed, some accommodations require technology, others require trained professionals, but many simply require creativity and flexibility on the part of the instructor and the student.

Discussion Questions

[Discuss questions of interest to the audience. Questions to start the conversation follow:]

  1. Based on what we have discussed today, is there anything you would do differently with the students with communication-related disabilities you have worked with previously?
  2. What do you think could be done by the department or an individual instructor to make courses and programs more accessible to students with communication-related disabilities?
  3. Who should coordinate or implement these actions?

Case Study

[Consider having participants discuss a case study. Case #1 in the Presentation Tips section.]


Communicating information is an essential part of learning in an academic setting. Creativity and flexibility can ensure an equal experience for students who have communication disorders. The best accommodations occur when the student with a disability, his or her instructor, and support staff work together.


Here are some resources that might be useful to you as you work to maximize effective communication with all students in your classes. [Elaborate.]

For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit The Faculty Room at www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty. This resource was developed at the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to faculty and administrators so that they can make their courses and programs accessible to all students. You can link to this resource from ____. [Arrange to provide a link from your campus' disabled student services website before the presentation.] Consider linking to this website from your department's faculty website.

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.