There are many teaching strategies 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 mental illness.
One in five Canadians, or 20% of the population, experiences a mental illness in their lifetime[iii]. In recent years, through university counselling centres and health services, universities have identified an increase in the number and complexity of mental illnesses present on campus.
Mental illness is often not obvious to others; typically you do not know if someone has a mental illness unless the individual chooses to disclose this 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 mental illness 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. Because of the episodic nature of mental illness, students with mental illness may go through periods of acute illness as well as periods of stability and success.
If you are aware of a person’s mental illness, it should not affect the way you interact with them. However, if someone is experiencing difficulty in controlling his/her symptoms or behaviour, or is in a crisis, you may need to help out. In these situations, it is best to stay calm and professional and let the person tell you how you can be most helpful.
The following instructional strategies will help create an environment that is inclusive to students who live with mental illness.
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.
Provide an organized, well-written, and complete syllabus that includes required readings, assignments, due dates, and defined expectations.
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 mental illness. 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 the nature of the disability to you, 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 you are following recommended practices.