Working with Students Who Have Disabilities

As an instructor, you will be working with students who have disabilities. Some may disclose this to you in the form of their Determination of Accommodations letter, while others may not disclose at all. According to the US Department of Education, 19.4% of undergraduates and 11.9% of graduate students report having a disability. This means there is a significant percentage of the Cal State East Bay student population who does receive accommodations through Accessibility Services, and a significant percent that does not.

No matter whether or not a student has a disability and has accommodations, Universal Design in Education helps each type of learner. So when you create your course with universal design in mind, more students are going to be able to comprehend and engage with your material.

In most cases, you will not know the nature of a student’s status with Accessibility Services unless they are comfortable enough with you to divulge that information (usually by showing their Determination of Accommodations). The request process and disclosure that students have accommodations is initiated by them. Accessibility Services cannot verify whether or not a student has accommodations. The first three sections focus on students who are blind/low vision, Deaf/hard of hearing, and who have autism, while the remaining sections focus on students with other types of disabilities and specific scenarios you might encounter. 


Students with Disabilities

It was recently reported that 74% of the world's population with disabilities have a disability that is invisible, meaning they "don’t use a wheelchair or anything else that might visually signal their impairment to the outside world." Furthermore, there is a substantial number of the Cal State East Bay population who have a disability that are not with Accessibility Services. But whether or not a student with an invisible disability is with Accessibility Services, we hope the information and scenarios below can help in providing them with the access they need.

Each Student's Experience is Unique

Although the overall symptoms of a specific disability are can be similar, and certain similar criteria need to be met in order for a medical professional to diagnose a disability in the first place, the similarities between one student's disability and another's usually stop there. For example, if there are two students who have a diagnosis of anxiety disorder, one might have panic attacks specifically during exams and other situations where they are expected to perform, while the other student might have social anxiety and experiences difficulty working with classmates.

Dual Diagnosis

A common occurrence is that a student will have two (or more) diagnoses and require accommodations that address each one in order to access their courses. For example, a student might have a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder as well as a specific learning disability that affects their reading speed and comprehension. Their Major Depressive Disorder symptoms include sleeplessness, low energy and concentration levels, and a lack of motivation. 

When that student experiences an exacerbation of their depression symptoms, it will be in addition to the learning disability that is always present. This creates an additional barrier for the student to, for example, be able to complete reading the chapter in your textbook that they needed to, or an essay assignment that was due. But such a student could have "Extension of Assignment Due Dates" as an accommodation, so working with the student and their accessibility counselor to push back the due date is a possibility.


Students Who Are Blind or Low Vision

A student who has low vision meets the challenge of their disability in much the same way as a student who is completely blind. Even with partial sight, a student with vision loss may experience eye strain while reading, an inability to read certain print, font size, or colors, and may be sensitive to light. For students who are blind, the age of onset may other areas such as mobility, spelling, and written communication.

Some examples of possible accommodations that a student with visual disabilities may require include (but are not limited to):

  • Accessible testing accommodations for extra time and the use of assistive technology
  • The conversion of textbooks and other course materials into accessible formats, including audio and electronic format and in braille
  • Access to a screen reader or screen magnifier
  • Note-taking services and/or the use of an audio recorder for course lectures
  • Allowance of laptops, tablets, or assistive technology in the classroom

Disability affects everyone differently and the individual with the disability is an expert in their own experience. When in doubt, please ask the individual about their needs or preferences. Here are some general considerations for teaching students who are blind or low vision: 

  • When walking with or guiding a student with vision loss, let the student take your arm just above the elbow; please do not grab the student’s arm.
  • Do not interrupt a person’s cane traveling, grab or lead a person with vision loss without their permission, or assume that the individual needs help.
  • Ask the person with vision loss if they need assistance with printed materials.
  • When conversing in a group, give a vocal cue by announcing the name of the person to whom you are speaking. Indicate when the conversation is at an end.
  • Do not leave a student who is blind in an open area; describe the area and help them to get oriented to a landmark.

Here are some considerations for supporting a student with vision loss in the classroom environment:

  • Let students know what course materials you will be using as soon as possible so that they may arrange for accessible formats.
  • Be aware that students may be using recorded or scanned texts or may need materials enlarged. Please work with the student and Accessibility Services to ensure that the student has appropriately modified materials.
  • Allow students with guide dogs to sit where appropriate to accommodate the dog. Advise other students to not pet or distract the dog without permission from the student/owner.
  • Take a visual and auditory teaching approach and do the same in meetings or other encounters whenever possible.
  • Read aloud anything that is written on the board or presented on handouts, PowerPoint slides, or any other visual aids.
  • Create text-based descriptions of materials that are primarily visual or graphical in nature.
  • Attempt to be specific when describing visuals (e.g., avoid “this” and “that”)
  • For fieldwork or field trips, assess the need for safety and transportation accommodations.
  • Physical education and recreation courses can be adapted so that the student can participate.
  • Courses taught in laboratory settings will usually require workstation modification. However, students may not be able to participate fully in a laboratory course without the help of an assistant.
  • Provide clear pathways and directions for the student who is traveling with the use of a cane.
  • If relocating for a class meeting, be sure to have someone remain behind to let the student know since a note on the classroom door will not suffice.
  • If the classroom or office arrangement has changed, let the student know.

Source: Indiana University of Pennsylvania


Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Below are both what you should expect when a student who is either deaf or hard of hearing enrolls in your course - as well as how to best prepare.

When students who are deaf/hard of hearing hopefully utilize their priority registration accommodation to sign up for their courses on the first day of registration, the process of notifying you begins.

Approximately ____ days before the beginning of the term, you will receive the following email:

“A student who has a hearing disability is enrolled in your _________ course. 

We strongly suggest that you post your course materials, handouts, etc. to your Blackboard (Bb) course site. This generic tactic facilitates accessibility for students with a variety of learning styles and abilities.

In addition, all audio materials used for your course will need captions or English subtitles. Examples of audio materials are commercial videos/movies, YouTube videos, PowerPoint presentations with audio, pre-recorded lectures, etc.  If your materials need captions, please check with the distributor for a captioned copy.  If a captioned copy is unavailable, you will need to submit it for captioning by placing a Service Desk request to Accessibility Services: Captioning Audio Materials. Processing video captioning can take up to two weeks so please schedule accordingly.

For additional support or questions regarding Assistive Technology and accessibility, please contact us at atstudent@csueastbay.edu.

For all questions relating to sign language interpreting and real-time captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, please contact the interpreting and real-time captioning coordinator at 510-885-7579 or interpreting@csueastbay.edu.”

Upon receiving this email, or preferably when you are designing your course, it's best to keep some practices in mind:

Synchronous Courses | In-Person & Online

  • Make certain that all audio materials are captioned (in-course videos, online materials with audio components, etc.)
  • Provide additional copies of other course materials to Accessibility Services so we may, in turn, provide it to our interpreters so they are able to properly communicate it to the student.
  • Check that the environment’s lighting is adequate for the student to be able to see the interpreters.
  • Provide our Assistive Technology Services Office with any media that you plan to use by allowing Blackboard access.
  • Try to refrain from turning your back to the class and from covering your mouth.
  • When requesting an in-person meeting with a student who is deaf, use our request form to make sure the student has access as soon as possible.
  • You may be asked to wear a microphone while lecturing for the duration of the term so you can be properly heard by either the sign language interpreters or a student who is hard of hearing.

Asynchronous Courses

  • Make certain that all audio materials are captioned (in-course videos, online materials with audio components, etc.)
  • Provide our Assistive Technology Services Office with any media that you plan to use by allowing Blackboard access if there is an audio component to your materials.

Students Who Have Autism

It is estimated by the CDC that diagnosed cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has gone from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 54 children over the last 20 years. As the tools for diagnosing autism have become more effective during this time, so have the ways in which students with this diagnosis are taught. Below are some best practices when working with students with ASD, with excerpts taken from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Kent State University.

  • Make sure your syllabus is straightforward and has clearly defined course requirements, along with the dates of exams and when assignments are due.
  • Provide as much advance notice as possible regarding any changes.
  • Try to generalize and consolidate information.
  • Summarize with a focus on meaning and patterns.
  • Make sure all expectations are direct and explicit.
  • Don't expect the student to automatically generalize instructions.
  • Provide direct feedback to the student when you observe areas of academic difficulty.
  • Encourage use of resources designed to help students with study skills, particularly organizational skills.
  • Avoid idioms, double meaning, and sarcasm whenever possible, unless you plan to explain your usage.
  • If the student has poor handwriting, allow use of a computer for tasks such as note-taking if easier for the student.

Some students with Autism are in our College Link Program (CLP) and may be accompanied by an academic coach, however a majority of our students with autism are not in CLP.

Each student's experience is unique.

Student Scenarios

Below are some scenarios you may come across during the course of the term. Almost certainly you will not know a student's diagnosis, so what you have to go on is what he/she is presenting with.

Picture of Student Focusing on Lecture

Sophia | Presents with Anxiety & Awkwardness

Sophia is a recent transfer student who does not introduce herself at the beginning of the term and initially does not show her accommodations letter to you, either. She is quiet and tends to keep to herself. You notice she fidgets often during lectures and does not appear to be taking notes. The group that she has been assigned to for an upcoming project says that she is doing the work, but reports several odd interactions with her. She is also not submitting some of her assignments by the deadline.

You meet with her during office hours to discuss these issues, where she discloses that she has accommodations through the Accessibility Services office and shows you her Determination of Accommodations letter. She states that wanted to try to take her courses without the use of her accommodations, but now realizes she needs them if she is to succeed. Because Sophia’s Determination of Accommodations letter has her accessibility counselor’s email at the bottom (below her signature), you email her counselor and work with both her and her accessibility counselor to determine how best to implement her accommodations and get tips about how her disability affects her in the course setting.

Picture of student focusing on lecture in classroom

Connor | Has a 'Coach'

Connor is a first-time freshman who will be in your upcoming GS course. Before the start of the term, he sends you an email with his Determination of Accommodations letter attached and introduces himself as a College Link Program student. This means that he will have an in-course shadow when he attends your course to discreetly make sure he is maintaining focus and participating when appropriate.

Connor is doing well in your course overall, but he is submitting some assignments after the deadline. His accessibility counselor, Jim, suggests a meeting between you, Connor, and him to discuss how to best handle this. Since Connor has the accommodation of “Extension of assignment due dates, pending collaboration with student, instructor, and accessibility counselor”, you work with him and his counselor to make it possible for him to submit his assignments up to 48 hours after the deadline. The only exception is an upcoming group project, which requires him to submit his portion of the work at the same time as his groupmates.

Student Listening to Lecture in a Classroom

Ryan | Agreement Accommodations

Ryan starts the semester by emailing his Determination of Accommodations letter to you and introduces himself. The letter has, among others, the accommodations “modification of course attendance requirement, pending collaboration between student, instructor, and accessibility counselor” as well as “extension of assignment due dates, pending collaboration between student, instructor, and accessibility counselor”. He does not go into detail about these in his email.

A couple of weeks later, you receive an email from Ryan’s accessibility counselor, Susan, indicating he would like to have a conversation with you about both of these accommodations. While this conversation can take place via phone, video, or in person, you choose to have it by email. The counselor mentions an “agreement” that can be made (formal with signatures or informal by email, phone, or video) about how many absences Ryan can have before he gets penalized and how late he can submit assignments should he experience an exacerbation of his disability.

Because your course does not penalize students for absences, that is something you tell Ryan that he does not need to worry about. All you ask is that either he or his accessibility counselor email you when it happens. Regarding the assignment extensions, it is possible for Ryan to submit some assignments 48 hours after the deadline, but for the assignments that are part of group work, that is unworkable.

Student Focusing on Lecturer in a Classroom

Aisha | Needs Accessible Materials

In the weeks leading up to the first day of classes, you will receive an email from the Accessible Media Office, indicating you will have a student who is blind or with low vision. The email states that all of your material will need to be “accessible”, meaning that any text needs to be able to be read by a text-to-voice software (aka a screen reader). 

Because your paper-based textbook was declared early, Aisha had time to request that it be converted into an electronic format and she will have access to it at the start of the term. Additionally, you work with the Accessible Media Office to determine how your content can be accessible moving forward. For now, Aisha will submit any other course materials to them for conversion.

Student Looking at the Front of the Lab Classroom

Devin | Has Sign Language Interpreters

Because Devin notified Accessibility Services of his need for Sign Language interpreters and/or real-time captioners in your upcoming course, you receive an email from both our Interpreting & Real-Time Captioning office, as well as our Assistive Technology Services Office, before the beginning of the term indicating several things:

  • Scheduling: If there are any schedule changes in synchronous (or on-campus) courses, the Interpreting Office needs to be notified immediately since this affects service providers' schedules. For example, if a course session is cancelled or added, changed to asynchronous, or changed to an "optional" session. 
  • Captioning: All audio course materials need to be captioned. That process can be done by...
  • Zoom: If the instructor uses breakout rooms, the service providers must be placed in the same room as the deaf or hard of hearing student. Also, it's extremely helpful for instructors to arrange recurring Zoom classroom links (and passcodes, if applicable) ahead of time.
Student Working on Computer with Two Professors Helping

Mateo | Math Difficulties

Mateo has been struggling with your course material (mathematics) and has failed the first midterm. He meets with you shortly after that result and indicates that he has always experienced difficulty with math, and that he has for as long as he can remember. He does not, however, indicate he has been diagnosed with any kind of learning disability.

Despite this, you recognize that the difficulties he is experiencing are similar to those of students who have had accommodations with Accessibility Services and you mention that to him. This is a new idea to Mateo, but he contacts Accessibility Services to see how we can help.

Student Looking at the Front of the Classroom

Megan | Accessible Furniture

On the first day of your course, you notice there is a desk without a chair in the front of the classroom with a reserved sign on it that lists the days and times your course meets and someone’s initials. A minute before the beginning of the course, Megan arrives and utilizes the reserved desk. At the end of the course meeting, Megan shows you her Determination of Accommodations letter. It lists two accommodations:

  • Classroom: Table
  • Classroom: Student may need to arrive late to course

As the term progresses, Megan arrives late to course by five minutes on average once per week. Thankfully she is able to keep up with the material due to the lecture notes and video recordings being readily available via Blackboard. However, her reserved table is frequently in different places in the classroom before course begins and it needs to be moved back to where Megan can access it. 

Megan informs Accessibility Services that her table is frequently not where it should be, and AS works with the other instructors who use that classroom to make sure Megan’s reserved table stays at the front of the classroom so it is accessible to her.