Students with Learning Disabilities: An Opportunity for Inclusive Pedagogy in College Classes

by Erica Newport
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

As a particular semester wrapped, I found myself in a final meeting with a student who was physically handicapped and who had multiple learning disabilities. We had journeyed together through my class, learning how to create the most from this learning and teaching experience.

Our society has grown rather fixated on measuring one’s impact. Oftentimes, people in my community outside of academe ask me if I feel my impact as a journalist was greater than that of Ph.D. student. Then there’s this reality, contributing to the “impact” conversation: Social media platforms offer instantaneous connection and some level of measurable outcome via analytics. As a teacher, I remind myself that each and every student is minimally an opportunity. But what about measurable impact, especially when a student is challenged in his or her learning due to emotional, mental, physical, and learning disabilities?

For me, there was a significant moment at the end of that aforementioned particular semester. I met with my student with learning and physical disabilities for a final time. My hope was to gain some insight to how the class was for the student, and what I could have done better, even differently, to improve this student’s learning experience.

While the student had no complaints or suggestions on what might improve his or her overall class experience, the student did mention how a news media internship had been attained due to his/her WordPress website created for coursework. The student described feeling a sense of unity in the classroom and feeling respected and cared for by the other classmates. The student described some students in our class as, now, being very good buddies.

A visual flashed through my mind, thinking back to students holding the door and making room for the disabled student within their small groups. Listening attentively when the student would struggle to articulate thoughts, or laugh alongside, when the student would crack a joke. By no means was this an instantaneous experience for any of the students, but as the semester advanced and the students witnessed the precedent of deference, patience, and kindness I set as an instructor, they followed suit.

So as I consider the level of impact we each experienced and enacted during the course of my class, a thought motivated by the presence of one student with disabilities, perhaps, the ripple effects are rather immeasurable, however, pedagogically meaningful.

As such, I’d like to share some important classroom resources for college faculty members students, parents, and the learning community to utilize, as needed.

  • Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no “otherwise” qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/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. “Qualified,” with respect to postsecondary education, means “a person who meets the academic and technical 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 1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities [including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, concentrating], 2) has a record of such an impairment, or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment.” Disabilities typically covered by legislation include, but are not limited to, AIDS, cancer, Cerebral Palsy, Diabetes, Epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairments, learning disorders, loss of limbs, mental health impairments, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and visual impairments.
  • The University of Florida, like other college campuses, offers a Disability Resource Center, which provides testing areas, study rooms, support staff, a listing of local providers and evaluators for learning disabilities, verification of disability forms, Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities documents, information on evaluation scholarship procedures. The DRC develops a letter for each student registered with DRC to provide to the student’s teachers, explaining what the teacher can do to accommodate the student’s needs.

Erica Newport is a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).

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