Interacting with Students with Disabilities

Many of us lack experience interacting with people with disabilities. We may feel awkward around them for fear of inadvertently saying or doing the wrong thing. Even our best intentions may be thwarted by our misperceptions about people with disabilities. Stereotypes and unfounded attitudes we may hold, could color our expectations for their academic performance. To create a supportive academic environment, we may need to evaluate, and possibly revise, our perceptions and attitudes. In addition, observing the following principles may help to ease discomfort and contribute to having more successful interactions with students with disabilities both in the classroom and one-on-one.

  • Keep in mind that students with disabilities are often hampered more by other people's attitudes and by physical and methodological barriers than by any functional limitations they may have.

  • Maintain an open mind about what a student with a disability can or cannot do. Often we assume that because we have not met someone with a disability in a given field, it cannot be done. Let the student determine her or his own capabilities.

  • Act as an advocate for treating students with disabilities with the same dignity and respect you would any student. Allowing jokes about people with disabilities, discussing a student's disability with others without prior consent, expecting a student to represent the views of all people with disabilities, and other forms of tokenism are inappropriate.

  • Understand that there is a joint responsibility for successful interactions. Instructors must work with students in a partnership to find solutions to issues that confront them.

  • 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.

  • Always address a student with a disability directly. Speak clearly, at a moderate pace and volume, and allow the student time to respond. Do not address the student's companions, including interpreters and aides, rather than the student. Also avoid exaggerating or slowing your speech.

  • It is not necessary to speak more loudly than usual to a student with a hearing disability. In fact, the louder the voice, the more likely the sound will distort when passing through a hearing aid.

  • When communicating with a student who has a hearing disability, make sure there is sufficient lighting and that your mouth is not obscured. Be prepared to repeat or rephrase what you are saying to facilitate comprehension. If there is a lack of comprehension, it is not considered insulting by most Deaf or hard of hearing people for you to write down what you are saying. Be aware that stressful and emotional situations make speech reading even more difficult than usual.

  • Do not pressure a Deaf student to have a conversation using speech reading if the student is uncomfortable communicating in that way. If the student indicates that she or he would like an interpreter, arrangements can be made through SEAS.

  • Face your class while you lecture. Turning towards the blackboard while you talk makes it difficult for any student to hear what you are saying. In addition, facing the class will enable students with hearing disabilities to read your lips. Students with visual disabilities will also benefit from being able to hear you clearly since they may not be able to see what is written on the blackboard.

  • It is okay to offer assistance to a student with a physical disability but be sure to respect the student's personal space and dignity by asking before assisting. A good way to ask if you can help is, "May I give you a hand with that?" or "Do you want/need me to do anything?" Even if the student refuses, it is still not wrong to ask.