Last week, Robert Wickham and I led a workshop on “Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Diverse Learning Styles and Disabilities.” One of the questions that this workshop addressed was: how can students with learning and sensory disabilities be empowered to actively participate in classroom discussions and activities? We considered a variety of tools and practices that can be utilized to accommodate students who have processing challenges, visual impairments, or hearing impairments that impact their learning experience in the classroom.
The theme of disabilities in education is familiar to many elementary and middle school teachers, but may get less attention in the training of college and university teachers. One study found that the percentage of teachers who felt adequately prepared to teach students with learning disabilities dropped from 44% of elementary school teachers, to 10.9% of university science teachers.
A recent study from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, funded by the Research in Disabilities Education program of the National Science Foundation, noted a particularly striking statistic: when college freshman entered a required remedial math course, only 15% of students with hearing impairments achieved or exceeded their recommended performance level, leading to gaps between these students and their peers. However, when appropriate learning interventions were implemented, the percentage of students with hearing impairments who exceeded their performance levels jumped to 68%.
More research needs to be done to determine if these kinds of results are typical, but it should nonetheless prompt university educators to consider the sorts of habits they can adopt in ordinary classroom practices to improve the learning experience of students with disabilities. While colleges have programs dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities, such as Yale’s excellent Resource Office on Disabilities (http://yalecollege.yale.edu/student-services/resource-office-disabilities), accommodating diverse learning needs is a team effort. It requires that teachers both create space for individual students to articulate their needs, and that teachers become aware of how their own verbal and nonverbal habits might present additional challenges for students with disabilities.
Here are some examples of the types of things to be aware of in your preparation and in the classroom:
· Always include information for students with disabilities on your syllabus. A school’s disability resources office can provide information on school policies and services, but also indicate how a student can contact you confidentially if they so desire.
· For people who are visually impaired, make sure to read aloud what you write on the board. Say “this painting by Rembrandt,” or “that glass jar” instead of just the words “this” or “that.”
· For people who are hearing-impaired and need to read lips, be sure not to stand where you are backlit.
· Treat students as individuals first. Two people with the same type of disability can have different accommodation needs and different levels of functioning. If you aren’t sure what language to use when talking about a disability, take a cue from how a student talks about him- or herself.
· Provide multiple modes of instructional communication: if you give verbal instructions for an activity, repeat the instructions on a handout or on a visual aid; or, provide information through both text and graphics or images.
· Consider sharing your lecture notes with students in advance, as this can be very helpful to students who need extra preparation time.
· Be on the lookout for “trigger phrases.” Suggestions that students who need accommodation just need to “work harder” or that they are getting “special treatment” can marginalize students with accommodation needs. Students with disabilities encounter misunderstanding and negative attitudes about their learning abilities and teachers also have a responsibility to support their social inclusion in the classroom.
If you want more information on Yale’s policies and services, check out this Faculty Guidebook (http://yalecollege.yale.edu/student-services/resource-office-disabilities/faculty-and-instructor-guidebook#learningdisabilities).
 Norman, K., Caseau, D., and Stefanich, G. (1998). Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive science classrooms: Survey results. Science Education 82(2): 127-146.
 Moon et al., (2012). “Accommodating students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),” SciTrain: 37 (http://www.catea.gatech.edu/scitrain/accommodating.pdf).