Support Services for Students with Disabilities

Disability Resource Guide


"No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States ... shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." - Section 504

In September 1973, the 93rd Congress passed Public Law 93-112, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As stated in Section 504 of this Act, our responsibility in meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities is made clear.

In May 1977, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued regulations implementing Section 504. This nondiscrimination statute and the regulations issued under it (especially Subpart E) guarantee a right of entrance for students with disabilities into our colleges and universities, as well as their participation in the program as a whole. It is this section 504 mandate that has promoted the development of disability support service programs in colleges and universities across the country.

This web site has been prepared as an introductory guide to the disabilities that impact learning in a college or university setting. It suggests various accommodations that can be made in the environment or in teaching style. In most instances, instruction of students with disabilities should be individualized. Each student with a disability will have a different level of functioning, even within the same disability category. Also, compensation skills will vary widely from one student to another. Consequently, the information presented here should be seen as a general guide to the instruction of students with disabilities.

This web site is designed as a reference guide that the professors, staff, and students can consult. It is not meant to substitute for interaction between professor, student, and disability support staff but rather to facilitate it.

As we continue to educate diverse populations, we have come to realize how critical the understanding and support of the college professor is to this process. It is hoped that the information presented here will assist the college professor in providing a holistic and integrated approach to teaching all individuals while maintaining the spirit of the law that is reflected in Section 504.

Specific Disabilities

Visual Impairment

The major challenge facing visually impaired students in an academic environment is the overwhelming amount of printed material with which they are confronted. Textbooks, class schedules, class syllabus, class handouts, tests, e-mail, overhead transparencies, slides, and videotapes are examples of the voluminous mass of visual material to which they must have access in an alternate form.

The degree of visual impairment may vary greatly among individuals. Between 70 and 80 percent of all legally blind individuals have some measurable vision. The partially sighted or low vision student is confronted with different psycho-social issues than the student who is totally blind. First, the partially sighted student is sometimes viewed by the professor and classmates as "faking it" or not really blind. Because many partially sighted students do not use a white cane for travel and because many get around much like everyone else, people have a difficult time believing that they need adaptive methods when utilizing printed material. Large print material and the use of an electronic magnifier (CCTV) or other magnification devices are essential equipment for students who are partially sighted.

Most blind students use a combination of methods to access printed material including readers, audio tape recorded books, Braille books, or a text-based scanner/reader computer hardware and software. When there is a blind student in the classroom, the professor should remember that "this and that" phrases are basically meaningless to that student. The professor must clearly identify what is being written on the blackboard or what is being presented on an overhead transparency.

Suggestions for working with students with visual impairments include:

Deaf and Hard of Hearing

As with visual impairments, hearing impairments vary greatly from mild hearing loss to profound. Obviously, the major challenge facing the deaf and hard of hearing student is communication. Individuals born with significant hearing loss experience great difficulty in both receptive and expressive speech. Many hearing impaired individuals use some type of hearing aid while also relying on speech, sign language, or lip-reading.

At best, a deaf individual can read only 30-40 percent of the sounds of spoken English by watching the speaker's lips. Deaf students will also communicate in writing when lip-reading, sign language, or finger spelling cannot be used effectively. Faculty members and classmates should not hesitate to write notes when necessary to communicate with a student who is deaf.

Many deaf students can, and do speak. However, some deaf people cannot automatically control the tone and volume of their speech so the speech may be initially difficult to understand. Understanding improves as one becomes more familiar with the deaf person's speech.

Deaf students, just like hearing students, vary to some degree in their communication skills. Factors such as personality, intelligence, degree of deafness, residual hearing, age of onset, and family environment all affect the student's communication skills. The main form of communication within the deaf community is sign language. In view of this, many deaf people have not mastered the grammatical subtleties of their "second language," English. This does not mean that professors should overlook errors in written (or spoken) work. However, they should know that this difficulty is not related to intelligence but similar to a student whose native language is one other than English.

This disability is considered to be the most common in the United States with approximately 19 million Americans having some hearing loss.

Suggestions for working with students who have a hearing loss include:

Learning Disabilities (LD)

Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and are presumed to be neurological based.

Diagnosis of a learning disability requires documentation of average to above average intellectual functioning along with a deficit in one or more of the following areas of neuropsychological functioning: auditory processing; visual processing; information processing speed; abstract and general reasoning; memory (long-term, short-term,visual, and auditory); spoken and written language; reading skills; mathematical skills; visual spatial skills; motor skills; psycho-social skills; executive functioning (planning ability).

Some Common Terms That Describe Specific Types of Learning Disabilities:

An impairment in the ability to read or to use language. Some common characteristics may include difficulties with learning and remembering letters, written or spoken words, sound/symbol associations, reversals of letters and words, omitting and adding letter to words, mishearing or misinterpreting words.
An impairment in the ability to perform mathematics. Some common characteristics may include difficulty in recognizing numbers, understanding basic mathematical concepts, and performing mathematical calculations. Dyscalculia is different from "math anxiety," which is primarily a psychological problem.
An impairment in written language. Some common characteristics may include poor handwriting, spelling, sentence structure, vocabulary usage and organization of information in a written format.
An impairment in the ability to use or understand language.

Some Common Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities:

Reading Skills

Slow reading rate and/or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with material difficulty; poor comprehension and retention; difficulty identifying important points and themes; poor mastery of phonics; confusion of similar words (i.e., saw for was); difficulty integrating new vocabulary.

Written Language Skills

Difficulty with sentence structure (i.e., incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, poor use of grammar, missing inflectional endings); frequent spelling errors (i.e., omissions, substitutions, transpositions); poor ability to copy correctly from a book or chalkboard; slow writing speed.

Oral Language Skills

Inability to concentrate on and comprehend oral language; difficulty orally expressing ideas which he/she seems to understand; written expression is better than oral expression; difficulty speaking grammatically correct English; difficulty telling a story in proper sequence.

Mathematical Skills

Incomplete mastery of basic facts (i.e., mathematical tables); reverses numbers (123 or 321 or 2231); confusion of operational symbols; poor ability to copy problems correctly from one line to another; difficulty comprehending word problems; mathematical reasoning deficits.

Organizational and Study Skills

Difficulty with time management; inability to recall what has been taught; difficulty following oral and/or written directions; lack of overall organization in written notes and compositions.

Social Skills

Some adults with learning disabilities may have social skills problems due to their inconsistent perceptual abilities. For the same reason that a person with visual perceptional problems may have trouble discriminating between the letters "b" and "d", the student with a learning disability may be unable to detect the difference between a joking wink and a disconcerting glance. People with auditory perceptual problems might not notice the difference between sincere and sarcastic comments or recognize other subtle changes in tone of voice. These difficulties in interpreting nonverbal messages may result in lowered self-esteem for some individuals and may cause difficulties with meeting people, working cooperatively with others, and making friends.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD)

A persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity which is manifest in academic, work, and/or social situations. Attention deficit is marked in school or work settings by careless mistakes and work which is cluttered or disorganized. Individuals often have difficulty with task completion, frequently shifting from one uncompleted activity to another. These individuals often have difficulties with organization, concentration, and distractibility. In social situations, inattention may be apparent by frequent shifts in conversation, poor listening comprehension, and not following details or rules of games and other activities. Symptoms of hyperactivity may take the form of feelings of restlessness and difficulty in engaging in quiet, sedentary activities. This developmental condition arises during childhood and is not accounted for on the basis of gross neurological, sensory, language or motor impairment, mental retardation, or severe emotional disturbance.

Genetic Factors: 20%-30% of all persons with ADD have a parent or sibling with similar problems.

used to describe attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity.
used to describe attention deficit disorder without the hyperactivity component.

Diagnosis of an adult with ADD/ADHD must be performed by a licensed psychologist or neurologist and requires documentation of a history of attentional features from childhood in one or more of the following categories:

Often acts before thinking; shifts excessively from one activity to another; may engage in physically dangerous activities.
Often fails to finish tasks; easily distracted; difficulty tracking conversation.
Excessive motor activity; excessive restlessness; difficulty sitting still or fidgets excessively.

Mobility / Orthopedically Impaired

There are various forms of mobility impairments which include, but are not limited to, partial or total paralysis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, some cardiac and respiratory diseases, arthritis, or impairment in speed or coordination. Some students with mobility impairments are easily identifiable by wheelchair use; others may have a subtle dysfunction. Accommodations may vary greatly and can best be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Considerations in working with these students may include:

Psychiatric/Psychological Disorders

Psychological disability is defined under ADA as "a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities including, but not necessarily limited to learning and/or academic success, thinking, communicating, etc." Psychological disabilities cover a wide range of disorders that can be controlled using a combination of medications and psychotherapy.

Nature of Psychological Disability:

Accommodations for Students with Psychological Disabilities Need to be:

  1. Based on the specific diagnosis
  2. Based on the particulars of how that disability presents in the specific individual
  3. Subject to modification based on the exigencies of medication trails and adjustments; be preceded by disclosure of the disability to the Disability Support Services Office with appropriate documentation

Accommodations must not:

  1. Cause undue burden on the setting or the institution
  2. Significantly alter the academic requirement
  3. Significantly alter the course content
  4. Include modifications that allow for changed conduct code or exceptions to civility code.