Strategies for assisting students with disabilities — providing accommodations in college classes

by Kéran Billaud
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Kéran Billaud

Kéran Billaud

Disabilities can affect physical movement, visual-spatial perception, sensitivity, concentration, and social interaction. Each one of these can make a lecture or lab more difficult than they need to be for a student who has disabilities.

Colleges and universities are required to provide accommodations for students with disabilities to create an equal learning environment for each student.

In 1973, Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of the act states that equal opportunity (including accommodations) must be provided by any institution/organization receiving federal funds to any person with a disability. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, including “major life activities” as a criterion for qualifying for equal opportunity and accommodations.

A disability is defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act as:

(1) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, such as walking, seeing, and hearing, of an individual;

(2) Having a record of such an impairment; or

(3) Being regarded as having such an impairment

Between 1990 and 2008, several U.S. Supreme Court cases narrowed down the standard for when the Americans with Disabilities Act would apply to a case, in cases like Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. (1999):

“The term “substantially limits” means, among other things, ‘[u]nable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform;’ or ‘[s]ignificantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner, or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.’ §1630.2(j). Finally, ‘[m]ajor [l]ife [a]ctivities means functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.’”
– from the Court Opinion delivered by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

But, Title II of the ADA “prohibit[s] discrimination on the basis of handicap in all services, programs, and activities provided or made available by local or state governments and their affiliate agencies”, regardless of whether they receive federal funding.” That includes school districts and higher education institutions. So, Congress amended the act in 2008 to make the standard more broad again, thereby including education.

If a student attends a private institution where there is no federal funding and no affiliation with local or state government, that student is not legally eligible for accommodations. In the case of a private institution fitting this description, the protocol for providing accommodations depends on its administration or Board of Trustees.

Still, as a result of this legislation, many schools have an office and staff to assist students with disabilities. At the University of Florida, for example, there is the Disabilities Resource Center (DRC), where students can file paperwork documenting a disability and make official requests for accommodations.

After these requests are made and approved, the student will be provided with a letter that explains to the student’s teachers what accommodations are required. Those can include extra work time, a note taker, different testing location, aid in class, supplemental materials, etc. If there is any direct communication between the teacher and the DRC, it is generally done via email or fax.

Providing the right accommodations as an instructor gets to the core of working directly with students with disabilities. Whether or not you have a student with a disability now, the key is being prepared for when you have a student with a disability in the future.

Here are some daily practices that I would recommend instructors use to assist students with disabilities and other students, too.

  • During class and via emails, provide reminders and resources.
  • Work one-on-one with students who request help, and offer feedback to those why may not be up to asking.
  • Give students timetables to work by, since time management can be difficult. Encourage planning ahead.

University of Florida’s Disabilities Resource Center provides a list of things for instructors to consider when designing a course:

  • Classroom accommodations
  • Reading methods
  • Textbooks and course packs
  • Syllabi and Handouts
  • Class notes (PowerPoint)
  • Taping lectures
  • Testing
  • Technology
  • Typeface and font

Along with accommodations, a teacher should be sensitive to the student(s) with disability. One should always be respectful, and treat the student like you would other students so they aren’t singled out. Make sure to discuss accommodations or grading privately or in the presence of the course’s lead instructor/professor. Those are private matters, and if the disability is medically recorded, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 mandates the confidentiality of such records. Additionally, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 protects the privacy of any educational records.

You can receive training for these laws at the following sites:



Kéran Billaud is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). You can follow him on Twitter @KeranBillaud


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