Students with Disabilities in the College Classroom


MODULE GOAL(S): To assist postsecondary administrators and faculty in understanding the characteristics of students with disabilities and strategies for communicating and building positive relationships. The module is to help faculty and staff understand and help the students determine and use, supports or accommodations to participate in the course.


  1. To define the term ‘disability.’
  2. To explain the legal mandates related to the student with a disability who may be enrolled in your courses.
  3. To review the process for determining if a student has a disability and requires accommodations in your class.
  4. To provide an overview of the most frequent accommodations required by a student with a disability.
  5. To obtain suggestions about what to do if you suspect that a student in your class has a disability.
  6. To determine where you can get more information about students with various disabilities who may be enrolled in your classes.


Between 1987 and 2003 the number of students with disabilities leaving high school and transitioning to institutions of higher education increased each year. For example, the number of students with learning disabilities has increased by 20 percent in community colleges and by 10 percent in four-year colleges. Additionally, there are more students with cognitive disabilities(e.g., autism, intellectual disability) enrolling in colleges and universities.

The process of students with disabilities transitioning from high school to college is challenging. To make asuccessful transition the students must:

  • Recognize the difference between their roles and responsibilities as a high school student and those of a college student.
  • Know and understand the rights and responsibilities afforded to them in college by federal legislation.
  • Acknowledge and understand how their disability may impact learning in a college environment.
  • Be willing to self-advocate or take ownership for their education.
  • Feel comfortable communicating and disclosing the accommodations that students need to experience academic success.

As a faculty member, you may want to know several things about student with disabilities in the college classroom before a student approaches you. Useful pieces of information may include background knowledge about disabilities, the laws that support both the institution and students, and how to know if a student has the necessary documentation that certifies the disability status and examples of accommodations that a student may need. After you receive the required documentation, you and the student will want to discuss how to help the student be successful in your course.


Several key questions are important once you become aware that a student in your class has a disability. These are:

  1. What constitutes a disability
  2. What legal mandates are relevant for the student in my course?
  3. What are accommodations?
  4. How does the student in my class obtain the necessary documentation?
  5. What should I do when a student provides documentation of the disability and a request for accommodations? 

What should I do if I suspect a student has a disability?

What constitutes a disability? A ‘disability’ is a condition caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease that may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech, or mental function. A student may have more than one disability. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair because of a car accident also may have a visual impairment. An individual with a disability is a person who has impairments that substantially limit major life activities such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, and working. Disabling conditions include epilepsy; paralysis (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis); HIV infection; AIDS; a substantial hearing or visual impairment; intellectual disability; psychiatric disability; cancer; heart disease; diabetes; or a specific learning disability. Conditions not considered a disability include minor, nonchronic conditions of short duration, such as a sprain, broken limb, or the flu.

Students with disabilities face several barriers as they enter postsecondary educational institutions. They are leaving a high school environment where teachers, other professionals, and their parents have helped guide their educational program. They may face architectural barriers if they have physical disabilities or use a walker or wheelchair. Some students encounter peers and adults that may have negative attitudes and expectations for their classroom performance, often because they have not had experience with students with disabilities. Another challenge is that once students enter college they are hesitant about disclosing their disability or self-advocating for themselves; thus, many students with disabilities may remain unknown to you because they are concerned about stigma, rejection or discrimination.

What legal mandates are relevant for students with disabilities enrolled in my classes?

Several federal laws outline the rights intended for students with disabilities in colleges and universities: (1) The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (2) The Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504), and (3) The Higher Education Act (HEA). Exhibit 1 provides a brief overview of the provisions of each law. 


 Exhibit 1: Legal Provisions for Students with Disabilities Enrolled in Higher Education Institutions
 Law  Provisions

 The Americans with Disabilities Act & Admendments to the Act (ADA-AA)

  • Prohibits discrimination against people with all disabilities
  • Requires public and private institutions to make accommodations for persons with disabilities in the areas of education, employment, transportation, public accommodations, state and local governments, and telecommunications

The Section 504 ofthe Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504)

  • Requires postsecondary students to identify their own disability Requires students to verify their eligibility for accommodations and services
  • Requires students to provide adequate documentation (‘proof’) of their disability that may include: a diagnosis of current disability; the date of the diagnosis, how the diagnosis was reached, credentials of the professional conducting the evaluation; how the disability affects a major life activity, and how the disability affects academic performance
 The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA)
  • Provides financial assistance to students.
  • Encourages collaboration among colleges, businesses, and relevant organizations to improve accessibility and support in higher education, to reach out to students with disabilities, and to work to reduce attitudinal barriers that prevent participation of individuals with disabilities in their community.
  • Allows early counseling of youth about postsecondary opportunities and what students need to do to prepare for these opportunities.
  • Aims to keep students in college until they graduate and encourages programs that counsel students about financial aid and support services.
  • Provides grants to colleges to develop support services for students.
  • Those include providing financial aid for the students with disabilities, disseminating information to faculty about support services for students with disabilities offered on campus, and conducting seminars for college faculty and administrators about student accommodation needs, and accommodations in the classrooms and on campus.


What are accommodations?

By becoming knowledgeable about accommodations needed by some people with disabilities and the services and supports available to them through legislation, you can help the student ease feelings or outward demonstrations of stigma, rejection and discrimination. A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a course, program, service, job, activity, assessment, test, or facility that enables a qualified individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance or to enjoy the same benefits and privileges that are available to an individual without a disability. The accommodations adjust for the effects that the disability may have on the student’s academic performance, not to reduce the academic requirements. Exhibit 2 illustrates the reasonable accommodations that a student with disabilities may request for your course:

 Exhibit 2: Types of Accommodations that aStudent with Disabilities May Request

 Type of Modification  Illustrative Examples
 Instructional or Classroom Modifications
  • Use of interpreter, note taker, reader
  • Taped lectures
  • Braille textbooks
  • Enlarged copies of notes, required readings, handouts, and exam questions
  • Preferential seating in the classroom
 Test-taking Modifications
  • Readers, recorders
  • Use of a computer with a spell checker
  • Extended time on exams
  • Quiet, distraction-free environment for taking exams
  • Use of aids such as calculators during the exam
  • Taped or oral versions of the exams
  • Alternative testing methods (i.e., demonstrating mastery of course objectives using a research paper, oral presentation, etc.)
  • More frequent tests, quizzes, or exams to obtain additional feedback

In addition to the accommodations above, professors may want toexercise flexibility in attendance or promptness rules for students with health-related or mobility disabilities.



A student enrolled in your class comes to Professor G during his first office hour. She introduces herself as Lois and says that she is a TBI survivor and will need double time on all of her tests. Professor G asks her what TBI is and she explains that it stands for Traumatic Brain Injury. He then asks the student if she can explain how the injury affects her test taking so you can determine the best accommodation. She says, "It slows me down" and offers no further explanation. He then asks if does she has any documentation that would allow him to better understand her needs. Lois says, "Oh, yeah, my doctor gave me this," and reaches into her backpack and hands you a one-inch thick file with neurological evaluations by a Dr. Monroe neatly hand written on the outside. Professor G quickly skims through the file and see that it is full of technical jargon. He explains to the student that not being a neurologist, he is not sure what this means. Can she explain it? She says no, but that her high school counselor told her to bring it to college to show people. Professor G.encourages the student to register with Disability Support Services (DSS) and to involve DSS in helping provide accommodations. The professor recognizes that it is not within his purview to determine Lois' eligibility for accommodations or to select accommodations on her behalf, especially since neither he nor the student know the academic impact of the disability and what accommodations are appropriate.

Adapted from: Stahl, S. (2003). Universal Design for Learning. The Faculty & Administrator Modules in Higher Education (FAME) Project. Grant awarded to The Ohio State University from the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education from 2002-2006 (#P333A020033-03).

How does the student in my class obtain the necessary documentation?

It is the student’s responsibility to obtain documentation and to notify the professors of the need for academic accommodations. It is important to know that each college and university has an Office of Disabled Student Services, Disability Support Program, or Office of Student Services that will help the student document the disability and the needed supports. The staff in these offices will determine eligibility and type of accommodations needed by using:

  • Documentation of the disability from qualified professionals provided by the student
  • Information gathered from a diagnostic student intake process
  • Information from appropriate college personnel regarding essential standards for courses, activities, jobs, and facilities

The criteria for determining reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Determining what constitutes reasonable accommodations
  • Identifying the array of accommodations that might remove barriers to learning and participating in class activities Determining whether or not the student has access to the course, program, service, job, activity or facility without accommodations
  • Verifying that essential elements of the course, program, service, job, activity or facility are not compromised by the accommodations (Montgomery College, 2007)

A sample accommodations letter for a student with learning disabilities is in Appendix A.

Teaching faculty and staff will not have to be involved in this process. However, you may want to place a statement in your syllabus and make an announcement at the first meeting of the class such as:

Any student who feels s/he may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact the Disability Support Services (DSS) office at [insert phone number and location] to establish eligibility and to coordinate reasonable accommodations. At a student's request, DSS prepares an individualized letter to professors that verifies the nature of the student's disability and documents the need for auxiliary aids and services and/or academic adjustments. Students are encouraged to meet with each professor early in the semester to discuss the academic implications of the disability as they relate to the specific course and to request accommodation. For additional information, please refer to [insert URL for disability services at your institution].

By making the announcement and including this language in the syllabus, you are indicating your willingness to work with the student, provide accommodations as needed, and protect the student’s privacy.

What should I do when a student provides documentation of the disability and requests accommodations?

Once the student shows you proof of documentation about the disability and accommodations needed, you and the student should review the accommodations and establish a plan to provide or implement the accommodations.

Students with disabilities should be held to the same evaluation and grading standards as those for all students. Accommodations do not give the student with a disability an unfair advantage. Rather, ‘reasonable’ accommodations are intended to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to achieve the same results that other students have the opportunity to achieve (Embry, Scott, and McGuire, 2004). Samuels (1992) provided an excellent analogy: “Accommodations don’t make things easier, just possible; in the same way eye glasses do not improve the strength of the eyes, they just make it possible for the individual to see better. Accommodations are interventions that allow the learner to indicate what they know. Without the accommodations, the learner may not be able to overcome certain barriers." If you feel unsure about how to implement the accommodations or the time needed to implement them, you should contact the Disability Services office and discuss your concerns.

What should I do if I suspect a student has a disability?

As stated above, many students with disabilities attending college are cautious about disclosing their disability or self-advocating for themselves. In addition, some students may not realize that they might have a disability until they encounter the rigor of college coursework. Students who have learning challenges may have difficulty in reading, writing, spelling and/or using numerical concepts.

  • Have poor handwriting
  • May be very articulate, but can not express thought clearly when writing
  • Appears clumsy or poorly coordinated
  • Exhibits such behaviors as having difficulty adhering to schedules, repeatedly forgets things, forgets or loses possessions or class material, seems disorganized, and confuses left and right and up and down
  • Confuses similar letters and words such as ‘b’ and ‘d’ and ‘was’ and ‘saw’
  • Is easily distracted
  • Often demonstrates anxiety or anger because of an inability to cope with the demands of the coursework

Most often, a student with a disability will exhibit several of these characteristics over along period. If a student does not self-disclose having a disability, and you suspect that a student has learning difficulties based on observations and class performance, you can take several courses of action. The first is to contact the office of student disability services and talk to them about your concerns. The staff will ask you to discuss your observations and provide suggestions for working with the student. One thing that they will tell you is that it is illegal to ask students to identify themselves to you or to ask for a list of these students in your classes. Second, you can talk with the student about your observations. When doing this, do it privately, with no other students or adults present. Take early and gentle initiative in seeking an ongoing dialogue with the student about the ways in which you can be supportive. Begin by expressing your confidence in the student’s ability to achieve their intellectual, personal, and professional potential. Encourage the student to develop the independence and self-advocacy skills that will help in and out of the classroom while in college and in their professional roles. If the student does express concern about their learning, encourage them to contact disability student services for an assessment and possible support.

If they do not respond to your dialogue, do not become discouraged—you may have triggered some thoughts and actions for the future. Above all, remember that you can be the student’s biggest source for support and always remain approachable. Discuss all student-related information directly with the student. Other than discussing your observations with student disability services, keep all disability-related information confidential.




Dr. DaVinci, a history professor, explains an assignment to the class and gives the class a week to work on the three-page assignment. As Dr. DaVinci grades the assignment, he notices a student having numerous writing difficulties including organization, grammar, and word spacing. He also notices that the student is having difficulty transferring quotes and footnotes correctly. Dr. DaVinci recognizes the student's name, Audrey, on the paper and remembers that the student is a very hard worker, well spoken, and frequently participates in class discussions. He also remembers that Audrey had told him that she spent ten hours working on the paper and had proofread it several times. Dr.DaVinci suspects the student is very familiar with the content but was not able to demonstrate this knowledge in her writing. After passing back the papers, Dr. DaVinci notices Audrey looking upset. He requests to meet with her after class. After class, Audrey asks Dr. DaVinci why she received a "D" on the paper. He does not answer her but begins to ask her various questions about the content of the paper. Based on her answers, he becomes convinced that she does understand the content. Dr. DaVinci gives Audrey a list of campus resources, including the phone number to the Disability Support Services (DSS) office and the writing center, so she can get help. He hopes that he is will empower Audrey arming her with resources so that she can seek resources and assistance on campus. He is also hoping that he is creating a positive environment for the student by expressing his belief in her abilities. Adapted from: Murray, A.(Ed.). (2003). The Rights & Responsibilities of Faculty, Students, and Disability Service Providers in Accommodating and Teaching College Students with Disabilities. The Faculty & Administrator Modules in Higher Education (FAME) Project. Grant awarded to The Ohio State University from the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education from 2002-2006 (#P333A020033-03).

This module provided an overview of illustrative disabilities that students enrolled in institutions of higher education might have. Several federal laws outline the rights of students with disabilities in these institutions. These rights include access to accommodations and the campus environment. To become eligible for accommodations, students with disabilities must provide documentation that can verify the disability and the accommodations needed. The institution, most often the office of student services or disability student services, will review the documentation and give the student a letter outlining accommodations needed in each class. When the student shows you the documentation, you will want to discuss the implementation of the accommodations in your class. If you observe several characteristics in a student that you suspect may indicate that the student has a disability, talk with the student privately and encourage them to seek support. Understanding this process and knowing about possible accommodations before the student provides the documentation will help you work with the student and ease feelings of stigma, rejection and discrimination.


Numerous websites provide additional information about students with disabilities in the college classroom.


Federal legislation mandates that institutions of higher education must provide reasonable accommodations for a student who has disclosed and documented a disability. These accommodations provide the student with an equal opportunity to participate in all classes, programs, activities, extra curricular activities, and services offered by the institution. You can encourage the student to self-identify by including a statement in your course syllabus how a student can receive accommodations. Your institution has an office for disability services that will work with both you and student in your classes.


It is important to remember that a student with a disability must self-identify that she/he has a disability and needs accommodation. To be eligible for reasonable and appropriate services, a student must present current and comprehensive documentation of disability to Disability Support Services. Students with disabilities can succeed in your courses when you and the student work together to determine reasonable accommodations for the student’s disability.



Appendix A

A Sample Accommodations Letter for a Student with Learning Disabilities

_________________, a student with a disability has enrolled in your class for the _________ semester. We are providing you with the following information to help you in working with this student.

Description of Disability:

1. [Student’s name]_ is currently enrolled in the College Access Program, (formerly the Learning Center Program) at Blue College. This student is eligible for the College Access Program based on a documented learning disability along with the potential to be successful at the college level.This student is staffed by the CAP team on a regular basis.

2._______________ has successfully completed the College AccessProgram (formerly the Learning Center Program) at Blue College.This student is found eligible for the College Access Program basedon a documented learning disability along with the potential to besuccessful at the college level.

3. _______________ has been documented by the Blue School district as having a history of learning disabilities. The documentation indicated that this student has the potential to succeed at the college level. The following are reasonable accommodation(s) based on the documentation.

4. _______________ was diagnosed with (1) a learning disability, (2) A learning disability with Attention Deficit Disorder, and (3) Attention Deficit Disorder. The testing indicates that this student has the potential to succeed at the college level.

5. _______________ a preliminary screening suggests the presence of a learning disability.

The following accommodation(s)are appropriate based on the test results.

Requested Accommodations:

  • This student would benefit greatly from the services of a notetaker. A notetaker is another person enrolled in the course who will voluntarily take notes. The student will provide special carbon‑treated notetaker paper that is available from the DSS office. The student may ask your assistance in finding a classmate who would volunteer to provide a copy of lecture notes. If available, a copy of your lecture notes or an outline of the lecture before class would also be helpful.
  • This student will need double time for completing examinations. Double time is the maximum extension unless the DSS counselor gives prior approval. Please call DSS at xxxx if you have questions regarding the extension of time. The Assessment Center will provided the assessment. The student needs to notify the instructor at least two days in advance of a test/exam or there may not be enough time to arrange for the accommodation.
  • This student may require specialized equipment including the use of a computer to complete examinations. This service will be provided in (1) the Assessment Center, (2) the Learning Center, and (3) the Assessment Center (CC14) and/or the Learning Center.
  • Poor spelling skills, a manifestation of the student’s learning disability, may negatively affect this student’s writing. Mastery of information, rather than ability to spell correctly, should be considered when grading.
  • This student should be encouraged to use a Franklin Speller, dictionary, and/or a computer software program with spell checking capabilities.
  • Please allow this student to use a tape recorder during your class to record lectures and assignments.
  • Please allow this student to write answers directly on the test instead of a scantron sheet.
  • Because of severe reading problems, this student may be using recorded textbooks. 
  • Please allow this student to use a calculator when conceptual understanding is tested rather than computational skill.
  • Please allow this student to use a card with formulas when computational skills are tested and not memorization of the formulas.
  • This student may not be able to sit or participate during the entire class time. Standing or taking a break should be done in such a way that the class is not disrupted. Please discuss this with the student.


  • For in class/impromptu writing and practicing and taking the English Competency and/or Exit Exam, accommodations include double time, the use of a word processor with spell check and/or a Franklin Speller and dictionary. The student will make necessary arrangements with the Learning Center and/or Assessment Center.
  • This student is using a computer and/or assistive technology to accomplish assignments. Extra time may be an appropriate accommodation.
  • Poor spelling skills, a manifestation of the student’s learning disability, may negatively affect writing assignments. This student should be encouraged to user a Franklin Speller, dictionary, and/or computer software program with spell checking capabilities.
  • This student’s disability impacts the ability to effectively organize information. Additional time may be necessary for extended writings and research projects.
  • Due to a learning disability, this student exhibits such problems as poor letter formation, letter reversals, omission, substitutions and transposition. Encouraging/allowing this student to revise and edit assignments will assist this individual to demonstrate course mastery.

If this student is to demonstrate proficiency, modification of some time requirements may be an appropriate step. Clear expectations would be helpful, and class standards should be upheld. All students must adhere to the Blue College Code of Conduct. A copy is available at XXXX. If you have any questions related to the student's academic performance, please feel free to call.

Adapted from Documentation Letters issued by the Disability Support Services at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD.


This document made possible in part by the support of The HSC Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation dedicated to expanding access and success in education beyond high school. HEATH is affiliated with The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The HSC Foundation. No official endorsement by the Foundation or of any product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document for non-commercial use and without fee, is hereby granted if appropriate credit to the HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center is included in all copies.