Assisting Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Instructors

What is equal access to education?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall, solely by reason of the handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Compliance with this law requires that academic institutions like The University of Iowa provide the same opportunity for students with disabilities to achieve success in the classroom that it provides to other students. 

In other words, equal access to education is achieved when physical and instructional barriers to learning are removed and the student is allowed to compete on the basis of his or her academic abilities alone. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) reinforced the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act by requiring that all public facilities, services, and communications be accessible to persons with disabilities and that auxiliary aids and services be provided unless an undue burden would result. 

What is reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is the term used by the ADA for modifications made to the learning environment that help to create equal educational opportunity. It does not require that students with disabilities be given special advantages in order to help them pass nor does it require that they be graded on a scale different from their classmates. 

On the contrary, it refers to steps that can be taken without significant difficulty or expense to allow otherwise qualified students to fulfill course requirements by limiting as much as possible the effects of their disabilities on their performance. If reasonable accommodations are not obvious, effort must be made to look for possible effective accommodations.

The Office of Student Disability Services (319/335-1462) is responsible for assessing a student's eligibility for reasonable accommodation and recommending specific accommodation techniques based on information provided by the student's health care provider. The following are examples of accommodations that may be necessary to ensure equal access to education:

  • providing alternative ways to fulfill course requirements,
  • developing and implementing innovative teaching techniques,
  • providing supervised tutorial assistance and adaptive technology,
  • tailoring course requirements to individual needs, and
  • modifying testing procedures to ensure accurate measurement of a student's academic abilities and not his or her disability.

Who qualifies as a disabled individual under the law?

The ADAAA defines an individual with a disability as a person who:

(1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of that person,
(2) has a record of such an impairment, or
(3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, lifting, bending, learning, and the operation of a major life activity, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. This definition can cover a broad range of disabilities. Instructors should seek guidance from Student Disability Services regarding any question about the effect of a student's disability on the student's academic performance.

What are your responsibilities as an instructor?

If a student identifies him/herself as having a disability and requests accommodation, generally it is the instructor's responsibility to ensure that the learning environment is accessible. Due to the very personal and private nature of some disabilities, it is important that instructors create an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable about coming forward to discuss any accommodation requests they may have. It is also imperative that instructors safeguard the confidentiality of students who disclose having a disability and/or request reasonable accommodation for a disability.

Instructors can demonstrate their openness and willingness to help students by including on their syllabi a statement encouraging students to make an appointment with the instructor if they need course adaptations or accommodations, if they have any emergency medical information of which the instructor should be aware, or if they need alternate arrangements in the event the building must be evacuated. It is also suggested that instructors bring the statement to the attention of the students at the first class meeting and inform them that the Office of Student Disability Services is available to assist them. 

It is strongly recommended that the instructor make arrangements to meet privately with students who choose to identify themselves as having a disability. When a student discloses a disability, an instructor should refer the student to Student Disability Services to register and request an accommodation. If Student Disability Services determines that the student is eligible for a reasonable accommodation, the instructor will receive a Student Academic Accommodation Request (SAAR) form explaining the accommodations that are recommended by Student Disability Services, based on the information provided by the student's health care provider. If the instructor has any concerns or questions about the recommended accommodations, the instructor should contact Student Disability Services to discuss those concerns and should not approach the student directly. An instructor should also look to his or her academic department for assistance in providing accommodations.

What are the responsibilities of the disabled student?

Although it is an instructor's responsibility to create an accessible learning environment, the student has the following responsibilities:

  • registering with Student Disability Services
  • identifying himself or herself as disabled if the disability is not obvious,
  • arranging for orientation to campus through Student Disability Services,
  • ordering accessible materials for class such as taped or brailled textbooks or large-print material through Student Disability Services,
  • arranging for in-class note takers and interpreters or tape recording lectures through Student Disability Services,
  • contacting Student Disability Services regarding alternative formats for textbooks and exams,
  • finding, training, and employing attendants if necessary, and
  • requesting alternative testing procedures in advance.

More information about providing reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities is available from Student Disability Services.

[Adapted with permission from Assisting Students with Disabilities - A Guide for Instructors, prepared by the Indiana University Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity in association with Indiana University Office of Disabled Student Services] April 1994; revised August 2003