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date: 16 January 2018

Accommodating Students with Physical Disabilities in Higher Education

Abstract and Keywords

Students with disabilities are becoming more and more common in higher education classrooms, including social work classrooms. The challenges that come with accommodating students so as to allow equal access to the educational experience are surmountable with the assistance of student disability offices. New technology is being developed to assist students with learning both in and out of the classroom. Supportive attitudes from faculty in including students with disabilities allow all students to benefit from the experience. As compliance with laws such as the ADA becomes commonplace for new construction, the concept of universal design makes inclusion a norm.

Keywords: disability, higher education, social work, assistive technology, social work

Disability Laws

Students with physical disabilities can be assets to the educational environment. However, faculty and students may be overwhelmed with constructing the classroom experience to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Due to societal changes through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, physical barriers have been removed for students intent on receiving post-secondary education. More students with disabilities are taking advantage of this opportunity by enrolling in universities and colleges.

The laws applying to these students change when they enroll in a university or college. No longer is the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) applicable. However, the laws more often used to deal with students in the classroom at a post-secondary level of education is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law applies to any post-secondary college or university that receives federal assistance from the Department of Education for students in the form of student loans or grants for research (Office of Civil Rights, 2006). Section 504, as it is commonly called, “forbids the exclusion or denial of students with disabilities, equal opportunity to receive program benefits or services” (OCR, 2006).

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 has also made it possible for more veterans to attend college. This act allows some veterans and their dependents to receive payments for tuition, books, housing, tutoring, and so on (Dortch, 2014). Some of these students may also have physical and/or emotional disabilities and are therefore eligible for accommodations.

Eligibility requirements for accommodations are usually processed through the college or university’s Office of Student Disabilities (OSD). Each institution develops procedures for alerting faculty to the needed accommodations in the classroom. It is at this juncture that confusion and questions arise from the faculty who are responsible for making education accessible to their students. Most universities have a document that is presented to the student’s classroom faculty either physically or electronically. Some universities choose to word accommodations in a more general way so that professors can confer with students about specific requirements. Other universities may be very specific about what is necessary. Whether general or specific, it can seem complex, given the other responsibilities for teaching that are placed on classroom professors. That extra time to meet with students to strategize accommodations specific to this class may seem overwhelming. Given these specialized needs, it may be difficult for faculty to perceive these students as assets. The intent to accommodate is usually not the issue, but how to accommodate may be more challenging. This article will summarize useful information for social work educators in the classroom setting.

Current Philosophy on Disability

“Physical disabilities can be defined as temporary or chronic conditions that affect functioning in walking, strength, coordination, fine motor and sensory abilities, and communication” (Escamilla, 2012, p. 213). Current sociological thought on disability regards disability as a social construction that society has developed. This thought suggests that society contributes to the limitations placed on people with disabilities including perceptions. Therefore, obvious disabilities are not always disabling to the person whom they impact. Faculty may need to reflect on their own thinking to determine if indeed they may be unintentionally limiting the student’s learning experience. The counterbalance to this is the student’s self-advocacy in clarifying his or her own needs.

Self-determination continues to be the guiding force that leads social work thinking in everyday transaction and education of persons with disabilities. It is also one of social work’s ethical responsibilities to clients. Stemming from self-determination is the art of self-advocacy, which is encouraged at the secondary school level and is carried by students into the college classroom (Parks & Schulte, 2009). Students are encouraged to ask for what they need from disability services office and from faculty. The philosophy of self-determination allows the student to take on the responsibility of asking for what they need in terms of accommodations, without having to depend on others to look after them. Not only is this an important aspect of maturation, but it also allows faculty the freedom to focus on their teaching responsibilities.

Faculty may be accustomed to dealing with students with disabilities by removing barriers allowing access to electronic class materials, allowing for interpreters in the classroom, using Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and other available technological aids to be discussed in more detail in Current Technological Aids. It is also common for the student to advocate for needed supports in the classroom. Concerns arise about how to access what students are requesting if they are unfamiliar to the faculty. Most institutions’ disability offices provide necessary support for faculty. Qualified professionals in this office will assist faculty in getting equipment, interpreters, and other materials for use in the classroom. Students with disabilities may also have access to their own personal adaptive equipment for use at home and there may be other available audio-supported reading. In all cases, non-condescending, supportive interaction with students paves the way for successful academic experience for students with physical disabilities.

In the Classroom

Confusion over what “reasonable accommodation” means is common, sometimes leaving professors feeling as if they need to change the core objectives of their class in order to accommodate one student. However, reasonable accommodations are best understood as changes that do not alter the learning goal of the class. Accommodations are intended to allow equal access, with emphasis on equal, to learning in the classroom. Students are allowed specific accommodations by presenting documentation and speaking with the university’s disability professionals. Integrating accommodations into existing teaching plans decreases interruptions. How that happens is usually left to the instructor.

There are many options for dealing with students’ physical impairments in the classroom. For example, it is clear that persons with cerebral palsy may have obvious spasticity; however, their intelligence is not influenced by their physical appearance (Nielsen, 2002). Seating arrangements in the classroom, while accommodating students, may place a student with cerebral palsy in the back of the classroom where their line of sight may be impaired. However, professors must balance the needs of students with disabilities and non-disabled students, therefore trying to decrease distractions for the majority of the class. Ultimately, professors in all cases should use good judgment.

Current Technological Aids

Accommodations may range from high-tech to low-tech. For example, a student may request a “low-tech” test reader. The accommodation would require a quiet location with a person who could read the content of a test out loud to a student with visual impairments. On the other end of the spectrum, students who are hearing impaired or deaf may need a Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). This involves the use of a stenographer to instantly translate the spoken word into English text. The text is displayed on a computer screen or other display (http://www.nationaldeafcenter.org/). Faculty should meet with the stenographers ahead of class time to share syllabi and assignment information.

Technological advances in the field of disability accommodations have set the bar high for higher education. For example, advances in accommodating students with visual impairments such as audio-supported reading (ASR) allow students to access text in many ways. Screen-reading software allows a student to listen to text at whatever rate the student wants, therefore “boosting reading comprehension” (Jackson & Hendricks, 2014). Students may access these tools in secondary education, preparing them for the increase in reading assignments during their college careers. Thus, an accommodation for more time required by students with visual impairments may not be necessary in the future.

Augmentative and alternative communication devices in the classroom present challenges, but mostly to the students with the disabilities. Students may be socially isolated outside the class due to the unusual electronic-sounding communication devices and other unusual sounds. As a result, classroom group activities may seem initially awkward to group members and could benefit from faculty intervention (Chung, Carter, & Sisco, 2012). Again, this may be an area of student self-awareness, whereby disability professionals can aid with classroom discussion and instruction at the professor’s discretion.

Many students, both those with disabilities and those without, are turning to electronic texts to use on their computers and iPads. While these are not as useful in the classroom, they can be very helpful for reading and writing assignments. Assistive technology exists to help students with individual study such as speech-to-text software. Common in this type of software is Dragon NaturallySpeaking and NaturalReader. An excellent resource for many aids can be found at the accessible technology website of the University of Washington. One reading program for people who are totally blind is Job Access with Speech (JAWS), which helps by reading what is being typed out loud to the person typing.

Other types of hardware to help the student with physical disabilities include adjustable tables. These can be purchased by the university for the classroom where the student will be located. Usually, individual students have purchased their own keyboards, adapted mouse trackball, and joysticks for use with their personal computers and may bring them into the classroom mounted onto a personal computer system.

For students with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder (ADD), hearing protectors may help to reduce distractions when studying in a large area. Carrels are also very useful to students with ADD. The low-tech accommodations of recording class lectures, asking faculty for lecture notes, and borrowing another student’s notes are also very useful.

Universal Design

The idea of students without disabilities benefitting from adaptive equipment is becoming more commonplace. In fact, universal design is the ultimate inclusion practice. Universal design means that rather than focusing on disability, the focus is on the abilities of all people. Many changes in our campuses in terms of accessibility have also assisted those of us without disabilities. For example, the use of automatic door-opening devices has helped many a person with a broken leg, on crutches, to get in the door. The wider doors that allow for wheelchair access are also very useful for faculty dragging audiovisual equipment into the classroom. Using electronic tablets in the classroom can allow all students to use individual screens that can be enlarged for better reading ability.

Designing new buildings to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards can be seen as compliance with legal mandates, but it also can be an opportunity to think of all students and teachers. Options for the layout of our classrooms include sitting in a circle. Thus, classroom design should allow for this physical restructuring. Application of universal design to teaching plans includes allowing students to use a variety of expressive methods to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject.

Case Example

A student with an anxiety disorder had difficulty presenting in front of the classroom. Presentations were part of the curriculum for this particular class. The reasoning behind using presentations was to help social work students prepare to present cases to other professionals. The professor was given notice of a need for accommodating this student in the area of presentations, allowing for alternative methods of presentation. The professor suggested that the student may want to develop a presentation using Prezi software with a voiceover of the content. The student was referred to the instructional technology staff to get support in learning how to do this. The student created a very professional presentation importing videotaping and his own voice. As he watched his presentation and the reaction from other students, his confidence improved.

Service Animals

Some of the latest issues facing post-secondary education are the increased use of service animals by returning veterans with disabilities and other students who may need service animals to deal with neurological issues such as epilepsy. In each case, students need to first check in with the disability service office on campus to be screened for the required certification for service animals. Other potential problems arise when non-disabled students become distracted by the animals. Professors may also find it distracting to have an animal in their classroom. There are many possibilities for dealing with these concerns.

Disability service professionals may want to come to the first class and show the class how to be with service animals. They may include information about how the animal is working and should not be petted during this time. The support of these animals is very important to a student with a physical disability, often making it possible for them to function outside of the home. Not all animals used by students are service animals. Therefore, unless the animal is wearing a service animal vest or is in a harness to support a person who is blind, they should come under the university’s policy on companion animals on campus.

Classroom Management

While students with disability are not in themselves disruptive, their appearance, their accommodations, or their communication may be uncommon experiences for other students in the classroom. The faculty, as well, may find it challenging to deal with this in a supportive way. Faculty may be concerned about the disruption this causes to the delivery of a lecture or to other teaching methods. This concern is not to be ignored. Having disability professionals attend the classes for feedback helps the professor get assistance on options to use to decrease disruption.

Internship Requirements

One of the most challenging situations for social work educators is that of the student with a disability in an internship setting. The most important issue is whether the student discloses that a disability exists. Some students go through classroom education in social work without need for accommodations and have not gone through the disability office. Their disabilities may not require accommodations until they are faced with being in an agency and required to perform activities related to their working with clients. For example, a student may have a mild hearing loss, but if they sit at the front of the classroom, they can usually hear “good enough.” However, working with clients, they may be in crowded places with lots of background noise or have clients who speak softly. Thus, the hearing loss becomes disabling and requires accommodations such as a quiet interview room and audio recording on interviews with clients.

At this point, it is important for the field director or their faculty designee to encourage the student to contact the student disability office and show documentation of the disability in order to obtain accommodation. If this is not done, then accommodations are not required.

Severance and Starr (2011) provide an excellent resource for field educators to reference for ideas on accommodations (p. 204). For example, a student with some visual impairment, but not “legally blind,” may be provided with printed materials in large print or e-text. This can be conveyed to the field instructor prior to placement of the student and supported by the field education office.

Educational Workshops for Faculty

Ultimately, one of the best ways for faculty to receive assistance is attendance to school-wide or department-wide training offered by student disability offices. This allows faculty to get specific instruction, ideas, and options for accommodating students in the classroom. Question-and-answer sessions help professors know that other faculty is dealing with common issues. Solutions to common problems may be shared by faculty. Finally, faculty should be encouraged to attempt novel ideas for helping students. Creativity is essential for dealing with accommodating students with disabilities. Providing accommodations for students with disability may encourage faculty to experience a new teaching method to enhance the classroom experience for all students.

However, sometimes, the answer is simply “right in front of us.” For example, if a wheelchair cannot fit, a chair or desk may be moved; thus, accessibility is achieved. Professionals in disability offices keep up with the latest information on technology, legal changes, and best practices. They are often the go-to resources for social work educators.

Classroom Practice Example

Dr. Smith begins the semester of a class in Human Behavior. While taking roll he discovers that he has a student in a wheelchair in the back of the classroom. He also discovers that the student is using an augmentative communication device that allows the student to communicate with the teacher in a computer-assisted voice. He is surprised, as are the students. He presents the syllabus for class and explains assignments for the semester. The student with a disability interacts with the class and the teacher with his communication device and appears to understand the content of the class. Dr. Smith expects that this student will present a letter from the disability office regarding necessary accommodations for this student. However, the student leaves without presenting such a letter. He assumes that this letter will come within the next few days, as this is the first day of class.

After the fourth day of class, the student with the disability has not presented any documentation of needed accommodations. In the meantime, Dr. Smith is ready to give a quiz to the entire class on paper. However, said student explains that he cannot take the quiz because he cannot write. He says he will have to have someone read the test to him and write down his answer. Since all students are taking the quiz, Dr. Smith does not have anyone to do this for him. Dr. Smith explains that he cannot do this and that the student will have to go to the OSD to get assistance with accommodations. After class, Dr. Smith goes with the student to the OSD and connects him with the disability professionals there.

The next class day, the student presents a letter from OSD that lets Dr. Smith know he will be taking his quizzes at the OSD testing center, where he will have reading software that will also connect with his or her communication device, allowing the student a method for answering the questions. Since this is away from Dr. Smith’s classroom, he arranges to give the quiz to the class during the last part of the class so that the student with the disability does not miss the lecture portion of the class.


Social work educators cannot be knowledgeable of all possible accommodations available to students with disabilities. However, there are many resources to assist both the classroom professor and the internship supervisors in supporting these students. Primarily, the university’s OSD provides all students with disabilities the needed documentation to provide to their professors and clarify their needs. OSD’s qualified professionals enable the student and professor to provide the appropriate learning environment for the student with the disability. The student may also be an excellent resource in achieving a balanced learning experience of support and educational challenge.

Resources are constantly being updated and developed to help students with disabilities with learning. Many resources are found with technology; however, very low-tech assistants can also be very useful. The use of service animals is becoming more common and can also create a disruptive environment in the classroom. However, consulting with student disability professionals within the university can be helpful in diffusing any major disruptions. Faculty are encouraged to use creativity in the classroom and to work with students to find opportunities for expression. Social work faculty are excellent resources to encourage an environment of inclusion in the classroom and in field instruction. The application of dignity and worth to the students we serve paves the way for a future with fewer obstacles to navigate.


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