Practical Tips for Professors

Teaching Students with Disabilities

Many professors find themselves uncomfortable teaching classes containing students with disabilities. They want to do a good job, but they are not quite sure what is expected of them. Do they need to modify their lectures? Should they provide extra or special accommodations of some kind? And very importantly, can they meet the needs of the student with disabilities without diminishing the ability of the other students to learn? You will find that you can achieve this through the principles of Universal Design.

Universal Design in teaching is the art of creating a learning environment where everyone can learn without special concessions or treatment. In a classroom environment that conforms to Universal Design, the professor is not required to specially modify his or her lectures when a student with special needs is present, nor do the course materials need to be “retrofitted” to any student. It is also very important to understand what Universal Design is not. Universal Design is not “dumbing down” the course material to reach the lowest common denominator of ability.

Principles of Universal Design

  • Identify the course expectations and clearly express these to the students. Having a clear idea of what you want to teach will help you to write effective tests and lectures.
  • Provide all important material in written as well as verbal forms. This will not only help blind, deaf, and dyslexic students, but will also be beneficial to students without disabilities.
  • Distribute Key Notes prior to starting class. This helps to make sure students who cannot write, or are just bad note-takers, get all of the key points of the lecture in an easy to review form. This also allows the teacher to emphasize the areas that are the most important, and doesn’t leave the student unsure of what to study.
  • Speak clearly and at an appropriate volume for the size of the room. Face the class while speaking, and make eye contact with the students. (Rather than looking over their heads or staring at the chalkboard.)
  • Announce all assignments, especially reading assignments, well in advance. Students using taped material will need time to get the assignment read onto tape. It takes an average of six weeks to have a book recorded. Again, be sure to give all assignments both orally and in written form.
  • Allow students to record lectures. This gives students the ability to review material and take notes that are more complete.

Universal Design does not only benefit students with disabilities. All students benefit from a clear, coherent teaching style. International students and students who are predominately verbal or predominately visual learners will especially benefit.


Students with disabilities are not looking for preferential treatment — just courtesy and a basic understanding of their needs. Nevertheless, it is important to be informed of a few ways you as a teacher can make the learning process easier for them. In fact, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is your legal responsibility to do so. Any requests for special accommodations should be initiated by the student. It is not your responsibility to anticipate every accommodation issue that might come up and have a solution for it.

Reasonable Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Be aware of the students in your class who have a disability. By being aware of who they are, and the nature of their disability, you are better able to teach them and provide for any special needs. This might include seating a student with a hearing disability on the front row to allow them to hear all that is said.

Encourage students to tell you if they have a disability. A good way to do this is to include a statement such as the following in the syllabus:

If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and the Disability Services office (x4478) as soon as possible.

Be willing to provide alternate testing methods. This might entail extended time on tests, a quiet non-distracting place to take tests, or oral exams. Some students may require the testing materials to be given in an alternate media type. For example, a blind mathematics student might require a copy of the test written in Nemeth Braille or a test read out loud to them. In this area, Disability Services can help. It is important to remember that students with disabilities should be, and expect to be held to the same high standards as their peers.

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