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Disability Resource Center

Building 44, Rm A-39
phone 202.274.6417 | fax 202.274.5375 | phone 202.274.5579 (tty)

Office Hours
Mon - Friday
8:30am to 5:00pm
 

Faculty Resources

Best practices for teaching students with disabilities
Best practices for teaching students with disabilities are the very same practices that are effective for all students. Good teaching is good teaching.

One successful model for good teaching is called Universal Instructional Design, or UID. We like CAST's (www.cast.org) definition, which says that in the UID model, "curriculum should include alternatives to make it accessible and appropriate for individuals with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities in widely varied learning contexts".

Think of it this way: a curb cut makes it easier for a person using a wheelchair to get from the street to the sidewalk-but that same curb cut is also used by people pushing strollers, rollerbladers, older people, or people pulling luggage. It's a design feature that is universal in its approach to access.

Now apply that idea to the educational environment to create an "academic curb cut". Put your course materials on a website, and you have immediately made your course accessible in a number of ways:

• A blind student can download the text and use a screenreader to hear the text read aloud, or have it Brailled
• a student for whom English is a second language can participate in an online discussion, taking as much time as he needs to compose his answer
• a student with a learning disability can use special software to engage with the text, or use a screenreader to hear the text orally as she reads along, increasing comprehension
• a student parent can access online links and conduct research at convenient times.


Principles of Universal Instructional Design (UID)

Providing students with different ways to access material creates an accessible environment for all students. Some students thrive in lectures; others obtain information effectively from text, while still others learn best through visual media such as diagrams, illustrations, charts, or video.

What range of instructional strategies or methods are available to you? (Remember that what is possible is determined by such factors as class size, available technology, your course's place in a sequence of courses, etc.) Here are some proven instructional strategies you might consider:

• case study
• lecture
• PowerPoint presentation of key ideas
• active lab in combination with demonstration or virtual lab
• Web supports such as archived lecture notes
• discussion (face-to-face and technology mediated)
• collaborative strategies
• group editing
• group problem-solving

  1. Create a welcoming classroom climate.

    Setting a welcoming tone up front allows students an opportunity to tell you what their needs are. Here are some ways to set a welcoming tone:

    • Establish ground rules. Students with hidden disabilities, especially psychiatric disabilities, often are okay with having the instructor know about their disability, but they are afraid of being harassed by their peers. A good way to create ground rules is to elicit them from the class.
    • Avoid singling out students. If you need to talk with a student, for example, about alternate testing arrangements, do it in private.
    • Recognize the authority of personal experience. Know that the student with the disability is usually the one who best understands the disability and how it impacts learning.
    • Attend to the physical needs of all students. Telling them where the bathrooms are and allowing occasional breaks in longer classes lets them know that you have an interest in their comfort.
    • Share your own experiences. As much as your comfort level allows, let students see that you are vulnerable. Vulnerability is a quality that students with disabilities have identified as important in people they decide to trust.
    • Honor diversity and cultural differences.
    • Develop an inclusive syllabus statement and highlight it verbally the first day of class. This is a powerful way to communicate to students with disabilities that a class will be accessible to them.
     
  2. Determine the essential components of the course.

    Essential components are the outcomes (including skills, knowledge, and attitudes) all students must demonstrate with or without using accommodations to be evaluated in a nondiscriminatory manner. In other words, some students might use accommodations and some might not, but all students must achieve the same outcomes. Process is important, of course, but not necessarily essential. Focusing on your course outcomes will help you to define your course's essential components.

    The difference between essential and nonessential course components is similar to the difference between "essential" and "preferred" skills commonly listed in job descriptions. As an employer, you may want to see both sets of skills, but only the essential skills are an absolute requirement of employment. Similarly, in your courses, you can articulate essential outcomes that all students must demonstrate in order to successfully complete the course, as well as preferred outcomes you hope students will be able to demonstrate.

    Finally, consider allowing some flexibility in getting to the outcomes. For example, a student who has the use of only one hand may still give a patient an injection, although he might need to use different procedures to achieve this outcome. Or, a student with a panic disorder may be unable to give a class presentation but may give the presentation privately to the instructor. The accommodation in this example is the private nature of the presentation; the essential component, the presentation, remains.
     
  3. Provide clear expectations and feedback.

    Having expectations clearly laid out in the syllabus and providing students with regular feedback on their performance are just two examples of ways to provide clear expectations and feedback.
     
  4. Explore ways to incorporate natural supports for learning.

    Natural supports are non-accommodation-based strategies that are built into a course. They benefit all students. For example, study guides, discussion groups, and practice tests may benefit all students, not just students with disabilities.

    More examples of natural supports that support all students:

    • Creating electronic archives of lecture notes makes participation by students with visual disabilities, hearing impairments, sick children, or unreasonable bosses more fully possible.
    • Instructions for important assignments can be included in the print syllabus, explained orally, and reinforced individually to ensure that all students’ strongest sensory mode is addressed.
    • Key course concepts can be taught by lecture, discussion, reading, and group work, to accommodate a range of learning styles.
    • Office hours can be held face-to-face, as is traditional, but also through e-mail, phone, or real time on-line chat.
     
  5. Use varied instructional methods.

    Providing students with different ways to access material creates an accessible environment for all students. Some students thrive in lectures; others obtain information effectively from text, while still others learn best through visual media such as diagrams, illustrations, charts, or video.

    What range of instructional strategies or methods are available to you? (Remember that what is possible is determined by such factors as class size, available technology, your course's place in a sequence of courses, etc.)
    Here are some proven instructional strategies you might consider:

    • case study
    • lecture
    • PowerPoint presentation of key ideas
    • active lab in combination with demonstration or virtual lab
    • Web supports such as archived lecture notes
    • discussion (face-to-face and technology mediated)
    • collaborative strategies
    • group editing
    • group problem-solving
     
  6. Provide a variety of ways for students to demonstrate knowledge.

    Just as no single mode of presentation suits all learners, neither does one single mode for demonstrating knowledge. Providing students with choices in demonstration of knowledge, such as allowing students to choose between writing a paper, presenting a speech, or conducting a multimedia project allows students to show what they know in a manner that works for them and does not conflict with your course’s essential components.

    Courses that employ Universal Instructional Design will logically look for ways to use multiple, varied, and broadly accessible approaches to testing and other modes of assessing learning. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about your methods of testing or evaluation:

    • What modes of testing or evaluation do you prefer? In which courses? Why?
    • What modes of testing do others in your field employ? Under what conditions would you consider employing them?
    • What modes of testing or evaluation would you employ under ideal conditions?
    • How do you and your colleagues determine the most appropriate modes of testing or evaluation in your field? "
     
  7. Use technology to enhance learning opportunities.
  8. Encourage faculty-student contact.

    Faculty-student contact is one of the strongest indicators for student retention. Strong evidence reported in Astin’s study "What Matters in College?" supports the view that faculty involvement with students and active self-directed learning by students contribute more than anything else to measurable student success.

(c) 2006 University of Minnesota, Adapted with permission.