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Accommodating Students with Disabilities

Today many students with disabilities (who could not have attended a college in the past) are able to flourish in a higher education environment. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 sets out legal rights and protections for these students. You should familiarize yourself not only with these rights but also with strategies to help these students learn. Different strategies may be required for students with physical disabilities versus those with learning disabilities.


Physical Disabilities

In “The View from a Wheelchair,” Jeffrey Whitman, a philosophy professor from Susquehanna University, gives a number of insights for dealing with students who are physically disabled. You will find this essay in a remarkable issue of Teaching Philosophy that includes a number of essays on the subject of teaching students who also have disabilities. Here are just a few of Whitman’s suggestions:


  • Be proactive. Many students with disabilities have learned to advocate for themselves, but the faculty member should also reach out to find out what accommodations are needed and make every effort to provide them (Whitman 347).

  • Don’t unwittingly treat a person with disabilities as “a pariah.” Many of us were trained as children not to stare at people with disabilities. Indeed, disabilities often make us uncomfortable, and we have a tendency to ignore students with disabilities. You should make every effort to fully engage these students in your classroom and make the same demands of them that you do of every other student (Whitman 349).

  • Don’t patronize students with disabilities or be overly solicitous. Whitman cautions against using some of the overly “pc” terms and thinking.  He writes “we are blind or crippled, not vision or mobility-impaired. Neither are we ‘confined to a wheelchair,’ . . . I for one am liberated by my wheelchair” (Whitman 350).

  • Take advantage of the rich experiential background that students with disabilities can bring to our classes. In a safe academic environment, these students bring a completely new perspective to the classroom. Among other things, Whitman tells us that they may challenge many of the dominant assumptions of our culture, disrupting the “narrative concerning autonomy and self-sufficiency” held by many students (Whitman 352).


Whitman’s is only one of a number of equally important essays in this volume. Your editor also strongly recommends that every thoughtful person should read Robert F. Murphy's The Body Silent: the Different World of the Disabled. Murphy is a professor of Anthropology at Columbia, who suffered from a disease that progressively disabled him. This book was life-changing for me and for everyone I know who read it.


Learning Disabilities

Many students with learning disabilities do extremely well in higher education. Students with documented learning disabilities also have a right to specific accommodations. Most institutions have an office that supports these students, and faculty members are usually informed of what accommodations are necessary. Here are a few of the most common problems and some of the recommended accommodations.  Many of these steps will also help students who do not have documented learning disabilities as well.
































Murphy, Robert F. The Body Silent: the Different World of the Disabled. New York: Norton, 1990.

Whitman, Jeffrey, The View from a Wheelchair.  Teaching to/by/about People with Disabilities, Teaching Philosophy.  Ed. Anita Silvers and Anita Ho (2007) 30.4: 345-356.



Author: John Immerwahr
Update: June 20, 2012

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