Update: There isn't any disabilities office. Not US...

I'd like to expand on a comment I just made down there: I'm not trying to find a silver bullet. I just want a reasonable starting point.

It is a pretty straightforward question:

As a teacher, what can I do to make sure the course is accessible to people with physical disabilities?

I have limited experience with these issues; a student lost some of his eyesight midway through the course. It wasn't that big of an issue; the only change we made was to print the exams using a bigger font.

I'm thinking specifically blindness and deafness, but then again, my lack of experience in this matter might lead me to forget important stuff :)

Therefore I'm aiming my question to anyone with some experience at this, from both sides of the table. What changes did you make to the material? Classes? Exams, etc., etc., etc.?

Official guidelines are helpful too. I'll try to find the guidelines at my university and add it here, if relevant.

Rather than edit it, I'll append a more detailed version:

What are the best practices to prepare material when dealing with students with blindness or deafness?

I know the question is quite general. That is because I'm trying to be proactive. I'm aware that these issues should be dealt in a case-by-case manner, but I'm looking for general good practices/experience to reduce the work needed to perform these adaptations, on both sides.

A few examples following jakebeal's answer:

  • There are a few file formats that don't play nice with accessibility software (screen readers and protected PDF files).
  • What multimedia material would you prepare? A subtitled video can be useful to deaf students, for instance.
  • 3
    I do not think that this question is a good fit for this site in its present form. There is no correct answer (it is rather a poll) and even despite this, it is very broad (by being not about a specific disability). A suitable question for this site would be how to address specific problems with a specific disability or about general best practices of dealing with disabilities.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Oct 28 '15 at 13:36
  • 1
    I agree in general with most what's been said here. But I think one of the most important things you can do is just let the students know you're available to help without calling attention to specific problems. I will usually say something on the first day like "If there's anything you need me to consider, if I speak too quickly or you can't read my handwriting, feel free to come up to me after class or shoot me an e-mail." And the few times students have taken me up on that I've reached out to whatever student services department is best qualified to handle the issue. Oct 28 '15 at 17:06
  • 1
    Good book on Universal Design cehd.umn.edu/passit/docs/pass-it-book.pdf Oct 29 '15 at 3:36
  • 2
    I had a deaf classmate in University who would follow lectures by lip reading. One of our professors had a large, bushy mustache and my friend had trouble understanding him. He therefore spoke to the professor and asked if he could try and enunciate more clearly to make it easier for him to understand. The next day, the professor had shaved off his mustache, earning the respect of all of us. I just mention this as an example of what people can do to help.
    – terdon
    Oct 29 '15 at 14:48

The part of the question about how you can amend your teaching to make it inclusive for disabilities does not seem to have been addressed so far.

Although you may not be in an institution that has a disability office, or in a territory that has anti-discrimination legislation, many readers of the question may be. Thus answers that suggest consulting someone centrally that can advise on institutional policy and practice is a sensible generic response.

The observation that complete blindness or deafness is so uncommon in normal university teaching that one should not specifically amend teaching practices to accommodate is a statistically valid observation.

However, teachers still need to know what to do. Further, vision impairment and hearing impairment are spectrum disorders and it will be certain that not all students in a class can hear everything that is said and see everything that is shown to them. I suspect many of us have been to presentations when we could not hear every word or see every image with sufficient clarity.

I advise my colleagues in similar situations, and this answer is based on the advice that I give.

Almost every institution has a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) of some sort. Sometimes it is a simple primitive set of web pages and sometimes it is more capable. Before we had VLEs we had class handout sheets, notice boards and so forth. Whatever level of information technology you are equipped with, you should use it to improve and enhance the mechanisms of information distribution to the class.

Ensure, therefore, that critical information points are communicated in more than one medium. If you verbalise something important, ensure it is also written down somewhere, whether than is in a handout, on the VLE or in the textbook, it doesn't matter. If you show something, such as writing on the board, try and verbalise it also (it does not need to be verbatim); just enough that those who can't quite see know what you have done. Sometimes, with diagrams and illustrations shown on the screen this can be more difficult, but with practice you will find that it improves your teaching for everyone.

Machine readable copies of material on the VLE become accessible to students with impairment by the use of technology. I suggest to my colleagues that copies of the notes or slides are put up on the VLE just in advance of the class. Then some students can follow along by using magnification software on their tablet, laptop or smartphone rather than looking at the screen or board.

By being more inclusive in this way, you enable the material to those with other conditions also, such as dyslexia, Irlens syndrome and a wider variety of SpLDs (Specific Learning Differences). One then moves away from Disability being a problem and an issue to an appreciation of social model where we are all differently enabled.


[1] Tompsett, B.C, 2007, Experiences of Teaching Disabled Students of Computing at UK Universities

  • Outstandingly fantastic answer. I agree with every single thing you said, I like your general guidelines and you provided links. I'm accepting this answer (sorry Mediocrateez). But if you are reading this, please consider Mediocrateez's answer as well. Oct 29 '15 at 20:51

I would like to echo the other answers and enhance by focusing specifically on the breadth of ability challenges that may be faced by various students. There are many different types of physical challenges that students may face, and even for a given challenge the answers may be different. For example, did you know that most blind people can actually see, just so poorly that it cannot be effectively corrected, and that "blindness" actually covers a wide range of different conditions?

The key approach to any student with physical impairments that need accommodation is:

  1. Do not assume that you should be handling it alone, or that you have the necessary knowledge to make an appropriate accommodation for that individual.
  2. Ask the student. They are the world's foremost expert on their condition and needs. You'll generally do much better if you begin by just treating them like any other capable adult.
  3. Get the university's experts involved, who will help you work out an appropriate plan tailored to an individual student.
  • 8
    @FábioDias Subtitles will help pretty much every student, if you have time to add them, since your diction and recording quality will be imperfect and some students may not be native speakers. As for the others: that's a rapidly moving target as technology changes on both sides, and you should consult the experts at your university for current best practices.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 28 '15 at 15:07
  • 5
    +1 for "ask the student". Any student with a disability pobably has had it for quite a while, has developed way to cope with it, and can tell you exactly what they need (either directly or through the university's disability office).
    – fkraiem
    Oct 28 '15 at 15:56
  • 1
    @fkraiem on the context of the question, "ask the student" doesn't really help. While you are preparing the material for the course, there is no student involved... with disabilities or otherwise... Oct 28 '15 at 15:59
  • 2
    @FábioDias It is impossible to predict what any given student will need, just be prepared to make adjustments as the need arises.
    – fkraiem
    Oct 28 '15 at 16:05
  • 2
    @FábioDias The I recommend your read resources on "universal design," such those supplied by AHEAD, or this collection of accommodation resources suggested by the University of Washington DO-IT program.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 28 '15 at 17:23

Please note that there is (at least a possibility) of legal contention in cases like the ones you are describing, so this is largely a matter of university policy, and not for individual instructors to decide. That being said, universities generally set up some office of disability services, which offer customized advice, on individual case-by-case basis. For example, here is this office for Boston University, and here for Harvard. Other universities also follow suite, as far as I know.

Thus, a general answer to this question is not possible, this is really something that these offices are going to answer for you, and that advice will be legally binding.

  • 3
    To be honest, legal contention was not in my original list of concerns. Rather, my line of though is more like: regardless of what you are supposed to do, what should you do? Oct 28 '15 at 13:53

As noted by The Dark Side universities typically have offices to arrange proper solutions for students with disabilities.

In the past, I had a visually impaired student (partially blind), and the university paid a student assistant to help him taking notes during the lessons.

For the exam, I printed the exam sheet with a much larger font and gave him a bit of extra time. He agreed that this was sufficient for him.

  • Exactly what we did to my student, but since the university did not have a specialized office for that, other students shared notes with him. We offered more time for the tests, he didn't need it and had the top grade of the class... Which concerns me, because he barely needed anyone anyway, he's very bright and competent. A student that needs more resources to learn with such disabilities would pose a more difficult challenge... Oct 28 '15 at 21:33
  • FWIW, the extra time thing happens "up the chain" at my (German) university; it's not a decision every teacher gets to (or has to) make.
    – Raphael
    Oct 29 '15 at 7:05

First off, I'd recommend reading Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the regulations that implemented those statutes at 34 C.F.R. Part 104 and 28 C.F.R Part 35. That will give you information about the legal portion. Know that the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) does enforce these regulations for higher education. Your local DSS department can help you with specifics.

TL;DR: check here for examples:

http://webaim.org/standards/508/checklist and here https://wcetblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/universal-design/

Since there are no strict "Do this, then do this" rules to HOW you're to implement this, many Universities and Colleges have differing standards and implementations. However, most all of them follow a certain set of loose guidelines. I'm not sure if you're asking about all formats, handouts, web pages, videos, etc. There's a TON of information out there, but no centralized spot to find it all.

I've found lots of stuff by searching for things like Accessibility, accessible documents, and section 504.

If you want to send me a DM, I can send you some more specific information, and guidelines that we use.

  • I have accepted this answer because, despite the unrelated US legal part, the provided links have useful resources regarding document accessibility. Oct 28 '15 at 17:44
  • my apologies. I didn't see the "not US" part until just now. Oct 28 '15 at 22:59
  • My fault. I moved that part to the top now. Oct 29 '15 at 0:56

I think deafness and blindness are so rare that preparing beforehand is a waste of resources. Dealing with such cases when they occur should be sufficient, in particular because you are probably not able to completely accomodate them without external expert assistance.

What you can and arguable should consider are issues that occur more frequently, such as color-blindness. Statistics suggest that every sizable course has at least a handful of afflicted students, so you can be sure your effor pays off. Plus, color blindness is usually quite easy to work around by using suitable color palettes and/or using markings besides color. As a nice bonus, such scripts/slides also print better, so you incidentally help every student.

I'm sure there are more disadvantages that frequently appear; I'll not try to give a complete list. Browse some resources on physical, mental and social issues that have high incidence (meaning that they are likely to occur in every 100-student-classroom), that may impede learning in your course as it is, and that you can actually accomodate to some extent given your skills and resources.

Tl;dr: Accept that you won't be able to prepare for all eventualities. Pick your battles; spend your resources effectively.

  • 1
    It's amazing how many plotting tools pick green and red as the first two default colors.
    – Raphael
    Oct 29 '15 at 7:08

At my university, there is an entire Services for Students with Disabilities office that handles these kinds of issues. Students with health issues that require accommodations are referred, usually by their teachers or doctors, to the office. At the office, they are screened for which types of accommodations will truly help them while being fair to other students given the circumstances. Then, the students can go to their professors with official forms indicating what kinds of accommodations they can receive.

This system allows professors to give very specific and reasonable accommodations. There's no risk that they'll make decisions that are too generous or restrictive, make the situation worse, are taken in by a student who is lying or refuse to believe a student who really has an issue, or fall for any of the other very serious risks associated with trying to decide what to do on their own.

I strongly suspect that your university has a similar department. You should do some research and see whether that's the case.

  • It doesn't. As stated in the question. Not United States. And considering that I specifically asked about general guidelines, explicitly saying that I'm aware of the 'case-by-case' approach, mostly irrelevant/repetition of other answer. Thanks for your opinion tho. Oct 29 '15 at 0:55

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