Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities

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.

What does it mean if someone has a physical disability?

There are many types of physical disabilities, including mobility-related disabilities, health and medical disabilities, and disabilities that result from brain injuries. Sometimes physical disabilities are obvious; however, it is not always possible to identify someone with a physical disability or a medical- or health-related disability.

Some physical disabilities require the use of an assistive device (for example, a wheelchair or walker). However, those with arthritis or multiple sclerosis, for instance, may not show any visible signs of disability. Physical disabilities may affect someone’s ability to stand, walk, sit or move around. Some physical disabilities are episodic; they can flare up, and then go through periods of remission. Some persons with physical disabilities may be accompanied by a personal support person.

Suggested tips on teaching a person who has a physical disability

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

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

  • Remove obstacles and arrange furniture to ensure clear passage to where you will sit and conduct any meeting.
  • Consider an assistive device as an extension of the person’s personal space.
  • Remember that most power wheelchairs are controlled by a hand-held device and should be left for the individual to control.
  • If a conversation is expected to last longer than a few moments, suggest an area nearby that is comfortable for all parties to be seated.
  • Speak directly to the person, not to an accompanying support person.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Accommodating a student with a physical 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 physical 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.

Sources

Adaptech, Teaching College Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Professors

Guelph University – Centre for Open Learning and Educational Support brochure, Teaching Students with a Physical Disability

Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Disability Information and Strategies

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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