Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

There are many teaching strategies that you can use to ensure effective and productive learning environments and experiences for all students, including those with disabilities. Accessible Education[i] is the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people who have a variety of backgrounds, abilities and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners[ii].

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, you have a responsibility to learn about accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of accessible programs and courses.

The following are some practical tips for teaching students with learning disabilities.

What does it mean if someone has a learning disability?

 

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada defines learning disabilities as follows:

“Learning Disabilities” refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding, or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

The term learning disability covers a range of disabilities and can vary significantly in nature and in severity. Therefore, requests for individual accommodations in an academic setting can vary between and among students identified as having learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities are often not obvious to others; typically you do not know if someone has a learning disability unless the individual chooses to disclose to you. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, students are protected from having to disclose the nature of their disability to academic personnel. Students with learning disabilities may find it difficult to disclose their disability to those in the academic environment. Some of the reasons for their reluctance include a fear of being stereotyped, the stigma of being treated differently, and the misperception of not being competent.

You probably won’t know that someone has a learning disability unless you’re told, but you may notice that the person is experiencing difficulty with communication (for example, receiving, expressing or processing information).

The following instructional strategies will help create an environment that is inclusive to students who live with learning disabilities.

Suggested tips on teaching a person with a learning disability

Suggestions for interacting one-on-one with a student with a learning disability

  • Patience, respect and a willingness to find a way to communicate are your best tools.
  • Speak normally, clearly and directly to the person in front of you.
  • Some persons with learning disabilities may take a little longer to understand and respond, so exercise patience.
  • Listen carefully and work with the person to provide information in a way that will best suit his or her needs.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Accommodating a students with a learning disability

As an educator, you have a responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Requests for accommodation are made on an individual basis by students through the Office for Students with Disabilities and require medical and/or formal documentation.

The following are common academic accommodations that may be required for students with learning disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the official request for academic accommodations as communicated by the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Remember that students with disabilities do not have to disclose their disability to their professors or anyone else in the academic environment in order to receive accommodations. Unless a student chooses to disclose to you the nature of his or her disability, you will only receive information on the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation and the accessibility resources and protocols at your university to ensure that you are following recommended practices.

Sources

John Logan, Council of Ontario Universities, Academic Colleague, Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Faculty at Ontario Universities

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, Official Definition of Learning Disabilities

Carleton University, Paul Menton Centre, Learning Disabilities

University of Guelph, Creating Opportunities for Successful Learning: A Handbook for Faculty on Learning Disability Issues

University of Ottawa, A Guide for Professors: Minimizing the Impact of Learning Obstacles

Trent University, Accessibility in Teaching: Strategies and Requirements for Supporting an Accessible Learning Environment

York University, Faculty Resource Guide: Teaching Students with Disabilities

[i] The term Accessible Education has been adopted to capture the value of two frameworks in improving the accessibility of university education: Universal Instructional Design (UID) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Both were informed by the architectural concept of Universal Design, which is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, The Principles of Universal Design)

“UID is not just about accessibility for persons with a disability – it’s about truly universal thinking – maximizing learning for students of all backgrounds and learner preferences while minimizing the need for special accommodations.” (University of Guelph, UID Implementation Guide)

“UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning)

[ii] Nilson, Linda B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd ed). John Wiley & Sons.

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