Students with disabilities have differing needs and concerns, depending on their type of disability. Disabilities vary greatly; some are visible while others are not. Some students experience physical disabilities, learning disabilities (such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia), chronic disabilities (such as lupus and multiple sclerosis), and psychological disabilities (such as depression and bipolar disorder). Students' needs vary depending on whether they have had a disability since birth or whether it developed later in life.
Given such a wide variety of disabilities, it is important that students work collaboratively with their professors and with the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to ensure that their needs are met. The SSD office is charged with establishing eligibility for disability-related services, such as academic adjustments and auxiliary aids for qualified students with disabilities, and can help students and faculty determine effective ways to meet disability-related needs in courses or programs.
Be aware of the following factors that can influence mentoring needs.
Reluctance to ask for help
Some students with disabilities fear appearing or becoming too dependent if they ask for help. Those whose disabilities are of recent onset or are "invisible" may be unaccustomed to asking for help or may fear being stigmatized as less capable due to the accommodations needed.
Effort exerted just to keep up
For many students with disabilities, meeting basic requirements demands more time and energy than it does for other students. A student with multiple sclerosis, for instance, may only have a certain number of hours in the day for school and studying before fatigue, vision problems, and cognitive deficits flare up. A student who is hard of hearing and uses a real-time captioner (like a court stenographer) may have to review several pages of notes from the captioner in order to create suitable study materials. This process requires additional preparation and study time. Some students find it challenging to participate in certain professional activities as much as they would like to (such as submitting papers for conferences) because they need to devote all their time and energy to meeting the demands of their programs.
Problems that arise from last-minute changes
Changes in reading assignments can be very difficult for students who are blind or visually impaired or have a learning disability in reading. As much as six weeks prior to the beginning of the semester, these students may submit requests to the Services for Students with Disabilities Office to render course reading materials in alternate formats. If any readings are added at a later date, it may take up to two weeks for students to get these new materials translated into accessible formats. It may not be feasible to meet reading deadlines if the conversion process cannot occur quickly enough.
Classroom relocations also may cause hardships for visually impaired students or students with mobility limitations, such as students in wheelchairs or with conditions that impact walking distance. (Note: People with disabilities prefer not to use language such as "physically challenged.")
ResourcesFor further information and advice:
- Services for Students with Disabilities
SSD has developed handbooks for both student and faculty about services and advice for possible accommodations.
- Accommodation Resource Center
The ARC has various computers, readers, speech dictation machines and scanners that can be of great assistance for students who are visually impaired or blind, have mobility impairments (including repetitive stress syndrome), or are learning disabled.
Suggestions for Students
- If you are a student with a disability, inform your professors and contact the SSD Office as soon as possible to determine how your needs can be accommodated to ensure equal access.
- Get a head start on readings by requesting syllabi in advance from your professors. Ask them to prioritize readings or task assignments if you anticipate difficulties completing them within the assigned time.
- Ask your professors to put an outline on the board for each class or seminar so that students with attention disabilities can follow the learning goals that day. Such an outline will benefit all students.
- Ask your professors how flexible they can be with deadlines. If you need additional time to complete tasks due to the nature of your disability or the accommodations you utilize, discuss this with your professors. Also, alert your professors to the additional steps or time you might need to take to deal with sudden changes in syllabi or research assignments.
- Focus on your and your peers' abilities. For example, if you use a wheelchair for mobility, demonstrate how you are able to use overhead projectors, blackboards, and other instructional tools or laboratory equipment. This is especially useful in job interviews.
Suggestions for Faculty
- Assume that there are students with disabilities, including invisible disabilities, among your graduate students.
- If you have a student in a wheelchair, know whether your office, lab, or seminar room is accessible. If not, work with the student and SSD to determine what accommodations will ensure equal access.
- Be explicit in your seminars and on your syllabus that you want students with disabilities to contact you as soon as possible about accommodations they may need. Be sure they know how best to contact you.
- Put your syllabus together as early as possible so that students with disabilities who need a head start on readings, or need reading materials converted, can do so. Mark which readings are required or optional, those of highest priority, and the due date for all reading assignments.
- Write an outline on the board for each class so that students with learning disabilities can follow the larger context of the learning goals that day.
- Plan creative group exercises so that students with various kinds of disabilities can participate and accomplish the exercises.
- Be as flexible as possible with deadlines. Students with disabilities do not want requirements lowered for them but may need additional time to complete tasks.
- Develop accommodations for missed seminars and meetings in advance and communicate them clearly.
- Focus on your students' abilities, not their disabilities.
- Do not hesitate to ask a student with a disability if she or he needs assistance.
- If you suspect a student might have a disability, or you are not sure how to meet the needs of a student with a disability, contact SSD.