Communicating with students with disabilities

There are times when most of us feel uncertain or perhaps awkward in our communication with people we do not know.  In the case of communicating with students with disabilities there may be a number of factors that we might want to check for ourselves.  Our unfamiliarity can leave room for assumptions and unexamined attitudes to become barriers to the communication we wish to achieve.

Perhaps you have been exposed to one or more of the following myths about people with disabilities:

  • There is the myth of the “helpless invalid” which can manifest itself with excessive deference and solicitousness. 
  • The myth of the “heroic disabled” might place a person with a disability on a pedestal making it difficult for her or him to assimilate and function. 
  • The myth of “unfair advantage” implies that students accommodated with extra testing time are receiving an unfair advantage over others. 
  • The “spread phenomenon” generalizes from a single disabling condition and assumes there are also intellectual, social or other physical deficits. 

Any of these unexamined stereotypes can confuse and distort our communication efforts.

Students with disabilities, on the other hand, encounter enormous differences in the college environment as compared to their secondary school experiences. They typically have little to no experience explaining or expressing their needs related to their disabilities.  This has been managed by a system that centers around parents, school counselors and teachers. Many students with disabilities have experienced stigma with being labeled as disabled in the secondary school. Students in general perceive the difference in power between themselves and faculty members. They can be fearful of the reaction they will receive if they identity themselves.

The sudden expectation that students with disabilities now have a conversation with an instructor about their needs and accommodations often comes as a shock.  It is not an unwillingness, nor a dodge nor an attempt to gain some unfair advantage that may create their hesitancy or lack of clarity in talking with you.  It is very unfamiliar territory.

To minimize these obstacles:

  • Examine your experiences, attitudes and understandings related to people with disabilities.
  • Recognize the challenges faced by students who may be unequipped to request the reasonable accommodations they need and deserve.
  • As per Instructional Policies and Procedures (Faculty and Staff Handbook, Section 6), each course syllabus should include the following statement:

If you have a disabling condition, which may interfere with your ability to successfully complete this course, please contact the Office of Accessibility Resource Services.

When introducing the syllabus to your class, be sure to verbally, positively, include the statement as a signal that creating an inclusive learning environment is a priority for you.

  • When a student presents you with an accommodation letter from the Disabilities Services office, invite a private conversation.  The information the student is sharing should be treated with confidentiality and sensitivity to the individual circumstances of the student. Discussions should focus on the accommodations as these relate to the learning context of the course. It is not appropriate or legal to ask students about the nature of their disability.

Also consider the following Helpful Communication Hints*

Helpful Communication Hints

Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration with which you treat others.  There are no strict rules when it comes to relating to people with disabilities.  However, here are some helpful hints.

General Guidelines

  • Ask a person with a disability if he/she needs help before providing assistance.
  • Talk directly to the person with a disability, not through the person’s companion or interpreter.
  • Refer to a person’s disability only if it is relevant to the conversation.  If so, refer to the person first and then the disability.  “A man who is blind” is better than “a blind man” because it emphasizes the person first.
  • Avoid negative descriptions of a person’s disability.  For example, “a person who uses a wheelchair” is more appropriate than “a person confined to a wheelchair.”  A wheelchair is not confining – it’s liberating!
  • Ask permission before you interact with a person’s guide dog or service dog.

Visual Impairments

  • Be descriptive for people with visual impairments.  Say, “The computer is about three feet to your left,” rather than “The computer is over there.”
  • When guiding people with visual impairments, offer them your arm rather than grabbing or pushing them.

Learning Disabilities

  • Offer directions/instruction both orally and in writing.  If asked, read instructions to individuals who have specific learning disabilities.

Mobility Impairments

  • Sit or otherwise position yourself at the approximate height of people sitting in wheelchairs when you interact.

Speech Impairments

  • Listen carefully.  Repeat what you think you understand and then ask the person with a speech impairment to clarify and/or repeat the portion that you did not understand.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Face people with hearing impairments so they can see your lips.
  • Speak clearly at a normal volume.  Speak more loudly only if requested.
  • Use paper and pencil if the deaf person does not read lips or if more accurate communication is needed.
  • In groups raise hands to be recognized, so the person who is deaf knows who is speaking.
  • When using an interpreter, speak directly to the person who is deaf; when an interpreter voices what a deaf person signs, look at the deaf person, not the interpreter.

Psychological Impairments

  • Provide information in clear, calm, respectful tones.
  • Allow opportunities for addressing specific questions.

* (Used with permission from DO IT:Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology University of Washington)