How Faculty Can Support Students with Disabilities

Support from faculty is integral to students' academic success. Instructors are key players in ensuring that students with disabilities receive the necessary accommodations in order to reach their potential. It is important to remember that accommodations are not advantages, but rather, they are a means of providing each student with full access to Brown's educational programs and an opportunity to effectively deminstrate what they have learned. Fair evaluations of students should reflect their course achievement and not their disabilities.

An essential point to keep in mind when teaching students with disabilities is that you should treat them as you would all your students. The similarities among students far outweigh any of their differences. After all, students with disabilities came to college with the same range of backgrounds, experiences, intelligence, and skills as other students and harbor the same high aspirations. The only difference is that these students require accommodations in order to achieve their true potential, which is often masked by their disability.

Classroom Guidelines

  • Providing a course syllabus in advance, if possible, or at the very beginning of the semester can be very helpful to students trying to make decisions about an appropriate course load. Detail all course requirements, including the material to be covered, grading methods, and due dates.
  • Including a syllabus statement, addressed students with disabilities, will let them know that you are approachable and willing to work with them, but will also remind them it is their responsibility to communicate their needs to you in advance. The syllabus statement can read:

"Brown University is committed to full inclusion of all students. Students who, by nature of a documented disability, require academic accommodationBrown University is committed to full inclusion of all students. Please inform me early in the term if you may require accommodations or modification of any of course procedures. You may speak with me after class, during office hours, or by appointment. If you need accommodations around online learning or in classroom accommodations, please be sure to reach out to Student Accessibility Services (SAS) for their assistance ([email protected], 401-863-9588). Students in need of short-term academic advice or support can contact one of the academic deans in the College.s should contact the professor during office hours. Students may also speak with Student Accessibility Services at 401-863-9588 to discuss the process for requesting accommodations."

An alternative wording:

"ACCOMMODATIONS FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES:  Any student with a documented disability is welcome to contact me as early in the semester as possible so that we may arrange reasonable accommodations.  As part of this process, please be in touch with Student Accessibility Services by calling 401-863-9588 or online at

  • Announce on the first day of class the desire to speak individually with students with disabilities as soon as possible. When meeting privately, you may want to  ask  how their disability affects them and how their learning may be facilitated by you. Faculty should not be asking questions regarding the basis of an accommodation, and confidentialy should be maintained/respected at all times. 
  • Announce on the first day of class your policies regarding attendance and make-up work. Reinforce this information by clearly stating it in the syllabus. These measures will allow students with disabilities who may anticipate being absent from class to make informed decisions about which courses to take. 

  • Announce reading assignments well in advance. Some students may need to use materials in alternate formats and this will give them time to get that in place.
  • Treat students with disabilities as individuals. Be careful of making assumptions based on stereotypes. If one student with a particular type of disability has difficulty with a specific task, do not assume that the next student with the same type of disability will experience similar problems.
  • Standards for academic credit should not be modified for students with disabilities. All students must meet the required level of understanding and performance competencies for a given course. There may need to be modifications in the evaluation or testing method, but the content should not be changed.

  • Plan to have classes, sections, and office hours in consistent and accessible locations. Also make yourself accessible in a variety of ways: e.g. telephone, email, and open office hours.
  • When ordering videos for a class, buy versions of videos with closed captioning.  All videos are required to be acessible via captioning, under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amended. Brown can help with getting exisitng video materials captioned. Email [email protected] for Media Services asistance with video captioning for acessibility.

Using Appropriate Terminology

When speaking to someone who has a condition that is unfamiliar, people are often wary of saying the wrong thing. To help alleviate some of that uncertainty, here are some general suggestions for speaking to and about people with disabilities. Although each person has her or his own style of communication, these guidelines may assist with interactions.

In referring to people with disabilities, it is preferable to use language that focuses on their abilities rather than their disabilities. Therefore, the use of the terms "handicapped," "able-bodied," "physically challenged," and "differently abled" is discouraged. It may also be helpful to keep the following points in mind when communicating with or about people with disabilities:

  • Never use the article "the" with a specific disability to describe people with that disability. The preferred term, "people with disabilities," stresses the humanity of the individuals and avoids objectification. If it is appropriate to refer to a person's disability, be sure to use the correct terminology for the specific disability.
    Example: NOT "the blind"
    USE "people who are blind"

  • Be wary of implying that people with disabilities deserve to be pitied, feared, or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient, or "special" than others who do not have a disability.

  • Never use the word "normal" to refer to people who do not have a disability in contrast to people with disabilities. Use "non-disabled" instead.
    Example: NOT "Jane did as well on the exam as the normal students."
    USE "Jane did well on her exam."

Student Responsibility

While SAS requests that faculty remain flexible when working with students around accommodations, it is still up to the student to remain actively involved in the accommodation process. Students are responsible for requesting accommodations in a reasonable time frame so that professors have enough notice to make the necessary arrangements. Students are also responsible for meeting with their instructors at the beginning of each semester to discuss their accommodations and how things will work for the particular course. A copy of the accommodation letter should be brought to this meeting. The student should also be keeping professors updated on any change/alteration to an existing accommodation. Professors should NOT be notified of a new accommodation or change at the 11th hour. Accommodations are not retroactive.