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

In the classroom or laboratory

Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do. Remember that although persons with disabilities might have specific needs, every individual is different.

Prior to the start of the course
  • Choose course materials early. This will allow enough time for you to convert the documents into alternative formats, or for students to request the formats they need.
  • If possible, choose accessible electronic versions of course readings. This will enable students to convert the reading into the format required, whether they use a screen reader, an enlarger or another technology. Be as precise as you can regarding the texts and pages that will be used.
  • If possible, provide advance course notes, copies of overhead slides, PowerPoint presentations and other materials.
When the course begins
  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. You can do this  verbally early in the semester and by including an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that such conversations are confidential and are strictly for facilitating any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place.
  • Identify and clearly express the essential course content, and recognize that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways. Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to enable all students to demonstrate their specific talents (for example, oral presentations, poster presentations and written assignments).
  • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
  • Consider providing your classes with information about the accessible features of their immediate environment (for example, automatic doors and accessible washrooms).
  • Provide an organized, well-written and complete syllabus including required readings, assignments, due dates and defined expectations as early as possible.
While in session
  • Put the lecture in context. Give students the “big picture” of where it fits into the overall course and how it relates to earlier materials. Consider beginning each class with a review of earlier material.
  • Summarize important points at the end of class, perhaps by using a PowerPoint slide, board or overhead projector.
  • Provide both verbal and written instructions with reminders of impending due dates for assignments or exams.
  • Be patient – sometimes communicating with someone with a disability can take a bit longer, requiring you or the other person to repeat comments several times.
  • Promote interaction and collaboration among students. Help them form study groups or set up an online forum where they can share and evaluate each other’s work, either formally or informally.
  • Allow scheduled breaks during lectures, tests and exams.
  • Allow for the use of adaptive technology.
  • Point out the important sections in course plans, textbooks and readings to guide test and exam preparation; when possible, provide samples of tests and exams.
  • Provide personal feedback on academic performance.

Tests, exams and evaluation

  • When possible, allow the use of a calculator, dictionary, computer and word processor with spell-check, as needed.
  • When possible, allow the use of memory aids for formulas or definitions.

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.

Classroom and laboratory accommodations
  • Assist in identifying potential tutors and/or note-takers.
  • Allow students to audio-record lectures.
  • Allow for extensions on assignments and essays.
  • Allow for preferential seating, either to facilitate better listening or to allow for proximity to an electrical outlet.
  • Arrange to meet with the student to discuss specific learning needs, strategies for success, alternatives to course assignments, and methods of evaluation when the student provides his or her letter of accommodation.
Tests, exams, and evaluation accommodations
  • Offer alternatives to traditional course work and methods of evaluation (such as an oral exam or presentation instead of a written exam, or an essay instead of multiple-choice and short-answer questions).
  • Allow extra time on tests and/or exams.
  • Provide a separate, distraction-free room for writing tests and/or exams.
  • Allow for the use of adaptive technology (for example, screen-readers or screen-enhancement software such as screen magnification).

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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