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Tips & Tools for Teaching Students with Disabilities

We all know that the language we use and the words we speak are important. Certainly the way we  refer to or portray people in speech and writing may reflect dignity and promote positive regard. Politically correct vocabularies are constantly changing. Still, the following suggestions appear to be a constant:

  • Refer to the person first, rather than the disability. This emphasizes the person’s worth and abilities rather than the disability.
  • The proper term is “disability”—not “handicap.” The term “handicapped” is now used only in relation to parking or other physical structures, and that will probably endure because of the cost of changing signage.
  • Avoid using a term for a disability as an adjective. For example, instead of saying an “LD student,” or a “blind student,” say a student with a disability or a student who is blind. Again, the focus is on the person, not the disability.
  • Avoid euphemisms, such as “physically challenged.” These suggest that barriers are good or that disabilities exist to build a person’s character. Simply stated, the person has a disability.
  • Avoid “clumping” or labeling--for example, the disabled, the blind, the deaf. However, there is one exception to this general guideline. Some people who are deaf are very proud of their deaf culture and  prefer to be called deaf rather than a person who is deaf or a person who has a hearing impairment. When in doubt, ask the individual.


Following are examples of how faculty may avoid breaching confidentiality or creating uncomfortable situations for a student with disabilities. Faculty members should:

  • Avoid making any statements or implications that a student with a disability is any different from the general student population
  • Encourage students with disabilities who are approved for taking proctored exams, to report to the testing center on the day and time of the exam as scheduled
  • Not ask the student for documentation other than that provided by Center for Student Accessibility 
  • Discuss the student’s disability accommodations in a private place
  • Not deny a student an accommodation, but check first with the Manager for the Center for Student Accessibility 
  • Look at the student as an individual without comparison to other students, even other students with disabilities
  • Use the same grading standard that is used for the rest of the class
  • Hold students with disabilities to the same academic standards as the rest of the class. The idea of the law is to provide meaningful opportunity through reasonable accommodations — not to provide two different sets of requirements.

Instructors may want to consider general recommendations for etiquette and respect when interacting with a person with a disability. Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI) suggests the following:

In General

  • Ask before doing. People with disabilities want to be as independent as possible, so don’t assume people with disabilities need or want your help. Ask, “May I get the door for you?”
  • Make eye contact. Speak directly to the person, not to or through his or her companion.
  • t’s acceptable to use common phrases that contain action words the person is not capable of doing. For example, you could invite a person in a wheelchair to walk with you or to ask a blind person if he or she “sees what you mean.”
  • Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else--not as if they are invisible or as if they are children.

Visual Impairments

  • Be descriptive. In helping to orient people with visual impairments, tell them what or who is approaching, if they need to step up or down, if a door is to the left or right, or what kind of handle it has. Warn them of any possible hazards.
  • People with visual impairments usually can hear just fine, so it is not necessary to speak loudly to them.
  • Offer to read written information for a person with a visual impairment.
  • If you are asked to guide a person with a visual impairment, offer your arm— don’t grab his or hers.

Speech Impairments

  • Listen patiently. Don’t complete sentences for them unless they look to you for help.
  • Don’t pretend to understand what a person says just to be polite.
  • Ask them to write down a word if you’re not sure what they are saying.

Hearing Impairments

  • Face people with hearing impairments when you talk with them so they can see your lips. This is especially important in the classroom where it is too easy to talk while facing a chalkboard.
  • Speak a little more slowly when talking to a person with a hearing impairment.
  • Raise the level of your voice a little.
  • Communicate in writing if necessary.

Mobility Impairments

  • Try sitting or crouching down to the approximate height of people in wheel chairs or scooters when you talk with them. Don’t lean on a person’s wheelchair unless you have permission.
  • Be aware of what is accessible and what is not accessible to people in wheelchairs.
  • Give a push only when asked. Or ask, “May I help you with that?”

Learning Disabilities

  • Ask students with learning disabilities whether they understand or agree. Better yet, ask a question that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.” Don’t assume people are not listening just because you get no verbal or visual feedback.
  • People with learning disabilities do not necessarily have a problem with general comprehension.
  • Offer to read written material aloud, when necessary.

With appropriate accommodation, qualified students with all types of disabilities have been successful in postsecondary education. The Center for Student Accessibility uses a case-by-case analysis to determine reasonable accommodation for a student with a disability, making each student’s accommodations personal to him or her. However, there are some general pedagogical techniques which are effective for a wide variety of students with disabilities and are considered effective teaching strategies—for all students. Consider incorporating the following suggestions into your teaching repertoire:

  • Select a text with a study guide when possible.
  • Include a statement on the syllabus about the Center for Student Accessibility. For example, “Students with disabilities should contact the Center for Student Accessibility to request accommodations.”
  • Invite students with disabilities to make an appointment during office hours to discuss their disabilities with you.
  • Make course expectations clear.
  • Ask for volunteer note takers at the beginning of the course.
  • With each class, briefly review the previous lecture.
  • Write key words/technical terms /proper names on the board or provide a lecture handout.
  • Begin each lecture with an outline of material to be covered during that class.
  • Provide guided lecture questions.
  • Face the class when speaking and speak directly to students.
  • Use gestures and natural expressions to convey meaning.
  • Briefly summarize material at the end of class.
  • Give assignments orally and in writing.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for questions and answers.
  • Well in advance of exams, provide study questions that illustrate the format as well as the content of the exam.
  • Explain what constitutes a good answer and why.
  • Be sure exam questions are clear and include a lot of white space on the page.
  • Use a multi-sensory approach (visual aids, overheads, handouts along with lectures).
  • Distribute samples of finished papers as examples or post a model on your web page.
  • Use captioned videos whenever possible. They have proven helpful to not only students with hearing impairments and learning disabilities, but international students as well.
  • Administer frequent quizzes to provide feedback.
  • Provide PowerPoint slide copies before the lecture.
  • Have students work in groups with hands-on activities or very specific group assignments.
  • Think about seating arrangements and match student needs with location.

Students with disabilities may be entitled to specific accommodations for testing. Based on their  documentation, a student may qualify for either extended time and/or adaptive testing (other modifications).

Please check the Letter of Notification to verify testing eligibility and fee waiver.

Students have the responsibility of notifying their instructor that they wish to use testing accommodations. This must be done at least 48 hours in advance. Tests with accommodations are to be taken at the same time as those given in class whenever possible.

It is most important that instructors complete and include a Test Instruction Form (available online  at and submit tests in advance of testing date.

The tests must be in the mailboxes NO LATER THAN 9:00 am at least one day prior to the date of testing.

Instructors are under no legal obligation to provide accommodations if the student fails to give adequate notification.  Also, if a student chooses not to use accommodations, s/he may not use “lack of time” as an excuse to retake the test to improve the grade. Accommodations are not retroactive. Prior notification/request is required.

A reasonable accommodation provides a student with a disability an opportunity to benefit from a program in the most integrated setting possible; it does not mean the accommodation is required to produce identical results or achievement. Academic requirements that the College has determined as essential to the program of instruction or to a directly related licensing requirement are not regarded as  discriminatory.

 The College is not obligated to provide accommodation when

  • the student is not qualified
  • the accommodation would result in a fundamental alteration of the course or program, or a change in the standards of the course or program
  • the institution is being asked to provide a service of a personal nature (attendants, individually prescribed devices, etc.)
  • the accommodation would impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the College

Access v. success: Accommodations are granted for the purpose of leveling the playing field for students with disabilities, but not to be used to guarantee success in the classroom. Accommodations are not retroactive and do not provide an unfair advantage over other students. 

Disability Grievance Training




Washington State University – Working with Students or Staff with Disabilities

Disability Awareness Symposium - Holly Ashkannejhad

Washington State University - Ableism in Our Everyday Language

Disability Awareness Symposium - Acacia Kapusta

Washington State University - Reading & Notetaking Tools 

Disability Awareness Symposium - Sierra Wu and Gabriel Morales

Washington State University – Faculty & Staff, Navigating the World of Academia with a Disability

Disability Awareness Symposium - Panel Discussion

Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science Educat

Faculty Support, Guidelines, Commnication101, Keeping it Confidential, Accessible Admissions Practices


Resources for teaching students with disabilities
Organization Website
ADAAA Information
Children and Adults with ADD (CHADD)
Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD)
IBM Special Needs Systems
Learning Disabilities Association of American (LDA)
National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Disabilities
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA)
504 Regulations
ADA Regulations
Office of Civil Rights
Autism Speaks
U.S. Department of Justice Supporting and Protecting Rights of Students


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