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Guidelines for teaching students with disabilities

Services for students with disabilities are offered at all universities and colleges throughout Ontario to ensure the delivery of equitable educational opportunities. Student Accessibility Services (SAS) at UOIT provides services to students with physical, medical, psychiatric and learning disabilities. The support and services provided by our office are designed to enable students with disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of the academic environment.

Disabilities range in their effect on an individual, and students vary in their skills and coping mechanisms. It is therefore important for faculty, students and learning strategies counsellors or accessibility advisors to work together to identify the most suitable method of accommodation, while upholding the integrity of academic programs. 

What are accommodations?

Accommodations in the classroom are alterations in the standard format of the program or course as originally designed. They may include alteration in the way information is presented in a specific course or in the manner in which student knowledge is evaluated. Accommodations are recommended to enable students with disabilities the optimum opportunity to learn and demonstrate their knowledge. They are meant to provide a fair academic experience for students with disabilities and not provide advantages.

The role of faculty members is integral since they create the learning objectives and are the major focus of the academic experience. Faculty is made aware of approved accommodations for each student when the student provides an accommodation letter from SAS. This letter informs faculty of the agreed accommodations based on the documentation provided to SAS.

Accommodations are specific to the students and may include:

  • Assistance obtaining class notes.
  • Books and handouts in accessible format.
  • Classroom assistants.
  • Extra time and/or use of technical supports for tests and exams.
  • Sign language interpreters.
  • Specialized software, such as text-to-speech or speech-to-text.
  • Support from a Learning Strategist.
  • Support from an Adaptive Technologist.

Instructional accommodation suggestions

Reasonable accommodations can usually be made to course requirements that will benefit the majority of the student body, including individuals with disabilities, without compromising any of the key structural components of a course. Faculty members can ask themselves the following questions regarding the program, course and instruction, to determine what accommodations are best for each student:

  • What academic skills must be demonstrated?
  • What specific knowledge, principles or concepts must be mastered?
  • What skills will be needed in the field after graduation?
  • What methods of instructions are non-negotiable? Why?
  • What alternative methods of instruction could be used to present essential program or course components?
  • In what ways might equipment and other resources be used to enhance the learning opportunity?

General guidelines:

  • When possible, talk to students about their needs, what they think might be difficult for them, and accommodations that have worked for them in the past.
  • Use a multi-modal approach to teaching. Everyone has a modality of information processing that is best for them. Combine lecturing with visual reinforcements, demonstrations, concrete examples or personal anecdotes. Be sure to explain PowerPoint figures or diagrams.
  • Make sure course outlines clearly state all expectations, including assignment due dates, readings and the grading breakdown. It can be crucial for some students to have access to outlines before registration so they can make a more realistic judgment about their courses and workload. Since students may need months’ advance notice to order texts and readings in accessible format, it is important to have the course syllabus and reading list available early.
  • Give students access to copies of lectures, whenever possible, so they will have time to process the information prior to the lecture.
  • Reinforce main ideas. Give cues to the student that particular information is important. Review key concepts frequently to ensure they are understood.

How to evaluate academic performance

Evaluating a student’s academic performance will vary from person to person. Accommodations are not meant to provide an advantage for the student; rather, they are meant to help the student compensate for the effects of his/her disability. In determining the essential evaluation components of a course, it is important to look at the following questions:

  • What methods of assessing performance are absolutely necessary? Why?
  • What alternative methods of evaluation could be considered for assessing essential outcome variables?

Frequently used examination accommodations include:

  • Extra time reading, writing or processing test material.
  • Providing students with disabilities writing in a different area to have the opportunity to clarify questions from either faculty members or teaching assistants while writing the exam.
  • Students with visual, physical or several learning disabilities may require the use of a computer and other technology and even a scribe or a reader to complete test questions.

Laboratory accommodation

Laboratory situations can be particularly challenging for a student with a disability. Here are some accommodation suggestions:

  • Accompany demonstrations with detailed descriptions.
  • Assign the person with disability a lab partner or buddy. Arrange for an orientation to the lab layout in advance of the session if warranted.
  • Ensure your face is visible to students who are deaf or hard of hearing when giving explanations or demonstrations.
  • Label equipment, instruments and chemicals in large print or Braille for students with visual disabilities.
  • Provide lab manuals and other materials in advance in print or accessible format if required.
  • Providing accessible lab and computer equipment may require an adjustment of table height.
  • Be aware that the student may require specially adapted equipment.

All academic programs have very different requirements and all students have different strengths and  challenges. Communication is critical in clarifying all matters.

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