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Tips for Teachers: Academic Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

"Accommodations" are changes that are made to classroom or testing materials and procedures that help students with disabilities learn and participate in tests. An accommodation should not change the standard of learning, nor lower the expectations for performance that have been set for all students. Instead, accommodations "level the playing field" by allowing students to bypass (or partially bypass) the effects of a disability in order to learn and perform at the levels expected of students without disabilities.

Accommodations include practices such as allowing a student with a disability extra time to complete an assignment or a test, or providing amplification equipment for a student with a hearing impairment. Decisions about the need for accommodations are made by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, and are formally documented in the IEP.

Allowing students with disabilities to use accommodations is more than just good educational practice. Several federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 2004, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act require that accommodations be provided to students with disabilities who need them in the classroom and on state and district tests. These practices and requirements ensure that educators, school districts, and states are accountable for the academic progress of all students.

1.     Ask your students to clarify any special needs. At the beginning of each term or semester, you might make a general announcement: "Any student who feels that he or she may need accommodations for any sort of physical or hidden disability, please speak to me after class, make an appointment to see me, or see me during my office hours." Ask the student to what accommodations they need in your classroom to succeed.

2.     Remember that students with disabilities are students first and they have a disability second. It is natural to feel hesitant or uneasy when first meeting people who have a disability. Treat your student like any other student in the class.

3.     Be flexible about attendance and promptness. Students who use wheelchairs may encounter physical barriers in getting to class on time (broken elevators, late van transportation). Other students may sometimes feel fatigued or have difficulty concentrating as a result of their disability or their medication. Other students may have major medical problems that cause them to miss several days of school.  Try to distinguish students' physical problems from apathetic behavior. Talk to the student or their parents if you have concerns.

4.     Be sensitive to "hidden" disabilities. Three principal types of disabilities may not be immediately visible: learning disabilities, mental health, and chronic health disabilities (diabetes, seizure disorders, lupus, aids, etc.).

5.     Ensure classroom access. Most buildings on your campus should have entrances that are accessible to students who use mobility aids (wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers). Individual classrooms and laboratories may differ in their accessibility. Observe seating needs. Students who use canes, crutches, or walkers appreciate having a chair or desk that is close to the door. Access to these seats should be flat: no steps, no uneven surfaces. Wheelchair users need flat or ramped access, and classroom tables or desks must have enough clearance for them to get their legs underneath. Lab tables and computer consoles should be set up so that wheelchair users can comfortably reach the equipment.

6.     Make seating available for students' in-class aides. Students who have disabilities may have a classroom aid, make sure there is room for the aid to sit by the student.

7.     Follow good teaching practices. Many techniques that will help students who have disabilities will also benefit all the students in your class. For example:

  • Open each session with a brief review of the previous session's material and an outline of that day's topic.
  • Conclude each session with a summary of key points.
  • Emphasize new or technical vocabulary by presenting it visually (on the chalkboard, an overhead slide, or a handout) as well as orally.
  • Describe all visual examples (board work, demonstrations, props). As you work at the board, instead of saying, "Adding this here and dividing by that gives us this," narrate what you are doing: "Adding all scores and dividing by the number of scores, gives us the mean."
  • Give students opportunities for questions, clarification, and review.
  • Write homework assignments on the board.

8.     Be aware of accommodations student’s might need in the classroom to succeed. Accommodations help a student succeed within the classroom. The accommodation may be as simple as a large pencil or sitting in a particular place in the classroom. The student could request a copy of another students notes, or the teachers outline, or a note taker. Students may ask to bring a tape recorder into class. The student may need large-print, Braille or recorded books. Many students will try to obtain the reading lists for the courses they plan on taking before the term begins so that they may get the material in the format they need. Other students may need to use a calculator, spell checker or other assistive technology. All accommodation needs should be documented on the students IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or if they are in college, at the resource center for students with disabilities.

9.     If needed, arrange for classroom participation or an alternative activity. Ask how a student wishes to participate if they cannot who cannot raise their hand to answer or ask questions. In class discussion and conversation directly address the student, not the student's aide or interpreter. In talking to deaf or hearing-disabled students, acknowledge the interpreter's presence but look at and address the student. When talking to a student in a wheelchair for more than a minute or two, it is best to sit down so that you can talk at eye level.

10.   Repeat comments or questions from participants as necessary and, as needed, identify the person who is speaking. When a student is speaking out of the range of vision of a deaf or hearing-disabled student, repeat the question or comment and indicate who is speaking (by motioning) so the student can follow the discussion. To accommodate students with visual disabilities, identify by name the student who is speaking or identify the person to whom you are speaking.

11.   Listen attentively when a student with a speech disability is speaking. Do not finish a student's sentences or interrupt. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the student to respond.

12.   Give options for oral presentations, if needed. Oral presentations may pose difficulties for students who have speech disabilities. Students who wish to give their presentation without assistance should be encouraged to do so. But some students will want to give the presentation with the help of an interpreter, and others may want to write out their presentation and ask an interpreter or another student to read it to the class.

For further information go to Accommodations at the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, NCSET.

Adaptations and Accommodations for Students with Disabilities: This resource list was developed by the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, NICHCY.