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The savvy professor’s guide to accommodating students with disabilities

  • Amy Edwards, Ed.D.
Posted on October 3, 2018

With the start of a new academic year upon us, faculty and staff might be flummoxed about how to handle students who may (or may not) have disabilities that impede classroom learning. Amy Edwards, Ed.D. is Director of the Drexel Autism Support Program, a student-centered program for current Drexel students with the goal of promoting academic and social competency, self-advocacy, interpersonal skills, independent living, and social integration. She helps us navigate the murky waters of “to ask or not to ask” about a learning disability and how to smoothly direct students towards helpful campus resources. Take a look at her tips below.

Don’t single out a student unless they have disclosed a disability to you first!

A good rule of thumb: DON’T ASK. The laws are different between high school and college for students with disabilities. In high school, students were entitled to receiving supports. In college, students are eligible to receive supports. What’s the difference? Students must be the first person to state that they have a disability because they are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, just like in a job setting. Students must ask for help – they do not automatically receive it and you can’t ask if they need it.

Make your entire class aware of resources available

You suspect a student or two might be struggling in class and could use supports that you know your campus offers. What should you do? Make a blanket statement to the whole class on the benefits of using campus resources and highlight a few – this could include the campus disability resources office, tutoring, coaching, or dedicated support offered to students with autism, ADHD, etc. (like DASP). Don’t single out the student, though.

If students have registered with the campus disability resources office, then faculty members should receive notice of the accommodations that a student receives, but note that this notice will not include a diagnosis.

Use general strategies that can assist all students

Beyond making your students aware of campus resources, you can help students with general strategies to help them manage their time and expectations, without asking them to disclose a disability:

  • If you know you are going to change a due date, provide enough time for students to adjust their schedule.
  • If you see that a student doesn’t understand how to do an assignment, break it down into smaller, concrete steps. Actionable items on a checklist work well.
  • If you have a student that is disrupting class with making noise or pacing, ask to see them after class and explain that what they are doing is disruptive. If they need to get up and walk around, ask them to sit near an exit, take a break and walk in the hall.
  • If you notice that a student isn’t participating in mandatory class activities, then pull them aside after class and say, “Hey – I noticed that you aren’t participating and this is mandatory for your grade. Is there anything that I can do to help you?”
  • You can also contact the student’s advisor to make them aware of your concerns and see if they can share any suggestions on helping the student.

If a student – with or without a disability – is violating the student conduct code by their actions, then it needs to be reported, just as you would report it for any other student.

Address privacy and stigma issues

All students are different and might have differing opinions on taking advantage of resources. Opinions range from “I’m proud of my disability and will take all resources available to me,” to “I don’t want anyone to know that I am different and don’t want to have an unfair advantage over everyone else by using accommodations,” and all the variations in between.

Faculty can assure students that they won’t disclose their diagnosis if that is what the student wants. They can also let students know that they are there for general questions or help and give examples of other students (with no identifying information!) who have used campus resources and done well. Remind students that accommodations are there to provide equal access and opportunity – not to provide an unfair advantage.  

Additional resources

The views expressed in this blog post are the author's own and not necessarily those of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

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