Students with disabilities – who are they?

Though few generalizations can be made about students with disabilities, it can be stated that they are more like students without disabilities than unlike them. Being disabled is not the common denominator for achieving success or failure. Family backgrounds and environmental influences are the prominent sources of differences and will override the disability-related issues. In other words, within our population of college students with disabilities there are bright, talented, motivated, well-adjusted, positive, enthusiastic, socially adept students who are goal oriented and academically prepared. These same qualities and attributes are found among our students without disabilities. On the other hand, there are “average” students with disabilities and without disabilities who share less distinctive levels of talent, motivation, positive outlooks, enthusiasm, social skills, and so forth.

The most devastating barriers for students with disabilities to overcome are the attitudinal barriers erected by other people. It is not uncommon to hear people with disabilities say that overcoming the limiting attitudes of those who are uninformed about disability is far more difficult to adjust to than the disability itself.

Therefore, it is important that faculty and staff members become sensitive and knowledgeable and seek a level of comfort with the issues of disability in general. Only then can effective communication begin. Understanding is the key to effective listening and providing reasonable accommodation when dealing with students with disabilities.

Seeking a comfort zone

Most faculty and staff members have little or no formal training in disability matters and may have little experience teaching students with disabilities. Therefore, it is understandable that they may be uncertain and apprehensive about the best approach to working with such students in the classroom.

Attaining a level of comfort with students with disabilities is an essential step for each faculty and staff member to achieve. One does not need to be academically trained in disability issues to work successfully with students with disabilities. Communication is the key to achieving one’s own comfort zone.

Becoming comfortable is an individual effort and is achieved through one’s own repeated experiences. Only when one interacts with students with disabilities does one overcome personal prejudices, biases, and sensitivities. From a level of comfort one will develop a more positive attitude from which to work. Once one has achieved a comfort zone, one will find it easier to manage a partnership in course work expectations, classroom accommodation, and adaptation issues.

The language of disabilities

In speaking or writing, remember that students with disabilities are like everyone else – except they happen to have a disability. The use of appropriate language when speaking with students with disabilities promotes dignity and respect. People with disabilities prefer that the focus is on their individuality, not their disability, unless, of course, it is the topic about which is being written or spoken. The term “handicapped” is falling into disuse and should be avoided. The terms “able-bodied,” “physically challenged,” and “differently abled” are also discouraged.

The following are some recommendations:

1. Speak to the person first, then the disability.

2. Emphasize abilities, not limitations.

3. Choice and independence are important; let the person do or speak for him/herself as much as possible.

4. Never use the article “the” with an adjective to describe people with disabilities. This preferred usage, “people with disabilities,” stresses the essential humanity of individuals and avoids objectification. Alternatively, the term “disabled people” is acceptable, but note that this term still defines people as disabled first, and people second.

  • Not the deaf, but people who are deaf (or hard of hearing)
  • Not the visually impaired, but people who are visually impaired
  • Not the disabled, but people with disabilities

5. Be careful not to imply either that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared, or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient, or “special” than others. Never use the term “normal” in contrast.

6. A person in a wheelchair is a “wheelchair user” or “uses a wheelchair.” Avoid terms that define the disability as a limitation, such as “confined to a wheelchair,” or “wheelchair-bound.” A wheelchair liberates; it doesn’t confine.

7. Never use the terms “victim” or “sufferer” to refer to a person who has or has had a disease or disability. This term dehumanizes the person and emphasizes powerlessness.

  • Not a victim of AIDS or AIDS sufferer, but a person with AIDS
  • Not a polio victim, but a person who had polio

8. A disability is a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc.; a handicap is a situation or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or oneself.

Words and expressions to avoid

The following words and expressions have negative and derogatory connotations and should therefore be avoided in regard to students with disabilities.

afflicted, defective, mongoloid

arthritic, deformed, normal

cerebral-palsied, dwarf, paralytic

confined to a wheelchair epileptic poor, unfortunate

crazy, insane, gimp, spastic, spaz

cripple, crip, invalid, stricken

deaf and dumb, lame ,victim

deaf mute, maimed, wheelchair-bound

midget, withered

When you interact with a student with a disability

General rules:

1. Offer help but wait until it is accepted before giving it. Offering assistance to someone is only polite behavior. Giving help before it is accepted is discourteous and can also be unsafe.

2. Speak directly to the student with the disability, not to those accompanying him/her. To ignore a person’s presence in a group is insensitive, and it is inconsiderate for two people to discuss a third person who is also present. For example, if a person who is deaf is with an interpreter, talk to the person who is deaf, not the interpreter.

3. If a person with a disability asks for help and you want to provide assistance, but you do not know how, ask the person the best way to provide the needed assistance.

4. If a student with a disability feels that he/she can do something but it is not understood how (e.g., performing certain job requirements, whitewater rafting), ask the person to explain.

5. Accept the fact that a disability exists. However, to ask personal questions about the disability would be inappropriate until a closer relationship develops in which personal questions are more naturally asked.

6. Do not assume that a lack of response indicates rudeness. In some cases a person with a disability may seem to react to situations in an unconventional manner or may appear to be ignoring you. Consider that the individual may have a hearing impairment or other disability, which may affect social or motor skills.

When speaking with a student using a wheelchair

1. Do not automatically hold on to a student’s wheelchair. It is part of that student’s body space. Hanging on or leaning on the wheelchair is similar to leaning on a student sitting in any chair.

2. Do not be sensitive about using words like “walking” or “running.” Students using wheelchairs use these same words.

3. If conversation proceeds more than a few minutes and it is possible to do so, consider sitting down in order to share eye level. It is uncomfortable for a seated student to look straight up for a long period of time.

When speaking with a student who is blind

1. If you see a student who is blind in a dangerous situation (such as about to walk into a wall or piece of furniture), speak out and make him/her aware of the danger.

2. Do not be sensitive to using words like “see” or “look,” etc. Students who are blind use these words regularly.

3. Speak in a clear normal manner. Do not exaggerate or raise your voice. Remember the student is blind, and does not have a hearing impairment.

When speaking to a student with a hearing impairment

1. Speak clearly and distinctly, but do not exaggerate your words. Use normal speech unless asked to slow down.

2. Provide a clear view of your mouth. Waving your hands or holding something in front of your lips, thus hiding them, makes speech reading impossible.

3. Use a normal tone unless you are asked to raise your voice. Shouting will be of no help.

4. Speak directly to the student, instead of from the side or back of the student. Also, make sure the student with the hearing impairment is looking at you before you begin to speak.

5. Speak expressively, and keep good eye contact. Students who are deaf cannot hear subtle changes in tone which may indicate sarcasm or seriousness. Many will rely on your facial expressions, gestures, and body language to understand what you are saying.

6. If you are having trouble understanding a student’s speech, feel free to ask him/her to repeat. If that does not work, then use paper and pen. The student will not be offended. Remember, communication is your goal. The method is secondary.

7. If you know any sign language, try using it. If the student you are communicating with finds it a problem, the student will let you know. Usually your attempts will be appreciated and supported.

8. When talking with a student who is deaf or hearing impaired, try not to stand in front of a light source (e.g., a window). The student who is deaf will find it hard to see your face, which will be silhouetted in the light.

9. Do not assume that the student who is deaf or hearing impaired understands you if he/she nods his/her head “yes.” This is sometimes an automatic reaction. If you want to make sure the student understood, ask him/her (in a tactful way) to repeat or explain what it was you said.