Queen's University

Instructor's Handbook: Accommodating Students with Disabilities

1. Introduction

This handbook is intended as an information and resource guide for faculty members, instructors and teaching assistants at Queen's University. It may also be a useful guide to senior administration and members of staff who wish to learn more about services for students attending the university who have disabilities. Besides describing procedures and resources, the handbook also emphasizes the need for all members of the University community – students, faculty, staff and administrators – to be responsible for the accommodation of students with disabilities and to assist in the societal task of eliminating all types of environmental barriers to education for students with disabilities.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) International Classification of Function, Disability and Health (ICF) (2001) provides a useful model for considering the accommodation of students with disabilities in post-secondary education. The ICF describes disability in terms of what a person both can and cannot do as a result of a structural or functional impairment. In addition, WHO identifies five Environmental Factors (incorporating both Barriers and Facilitators of participation) that contribute to disabling people. Because the University is not primarily a treatment setting, service is not directed at the structural or functional level, but in the WHO category of Environmental Barriers. These include five types of barriers: Attitudes and Beliefs; Policies, Services and Systems; Natural and Built Environments; Products and Technology; Relationships and Supports. There are both barriers to participation and facilitators of participation articulated in this category; facilitators in the University context being the accommodations provided to rectify limitations on participation in educational activities and experiences. The language of this model will be used to distinguish between the student's type of disability or structural impairment, in combination with environmental barriers, which results in difficulty performing a task in some anticipated fashion, and subsequent activity or participation restrictions. Environmental facilitators, or accommodations, are explored in detail.

The following hypothetical case provides an example of the WHO model in practice. A student with limited eyesight has a visual impairment with a resultant print disability. A participation restriction is encountered with the preponderance of print used for teaching in university. Alternate formats, such as large print, or e-text to make the content audible, are facilitators of participation, or accommodations, since reading print is then not required to the same extent. Altering the task requirements is accommodation for an environmental barrier – specific task expectations based on print. If all material for the course is audible, there may be no environmental barrier to remove, or accommodate, for someone with vision loss.

We all recognize that not every individual acquires knowledge in the same way. Among non-disabled individuals we recognize that some learn best through experiential learning ("hands on" experience), while others do best by reading and absorbing information first, then applying it. Individuals with disabilities also demonstrate a wide variety of strategies for effective learning. As well, a specific disability may reduce a person's access to a particular mode of learning. For example, students with visual impairments, and some of those with learning disabilities, may not be able to learn effectively from printed material, and may require the information in alternate format (for example, Braille or audio format). The goal of accommodation of students with disabilities at university is to provide effective educational opportunities in a manner consistent with the learning needs of the student, and to ensure that the community fulfils its responsibility to provide equal access to participation in the life of the university.

The need for accommodation of a disability depends on the environmental demands or tasks required, and the participation restriction posed by being unable to perform those tasks in an anticipated fashion. For example, a student with spinal cord injury has a structural and functional impairment. The student’s activity limitation lies in the inability to walk up stairs. A participation restriction is created when the only entrance to a classroom requires the use of stairs, a barrier in the built environment. A ramp facilitates participation in that class. Altering the environment is an accommodation that allows the student to fully participate in the class. The impairment and disability still pertain. Please refer to the illustration of this relationship below:

Structure / Function right arrow Participation left arrow Environmental Factors
Eye / vision right arrow Reading in class left arrow Use of print vs. e-text
Spinal cord / climbing right arrow Getting to class left arrow Stairs vs. ramp

The role of the University in providing accommodation is to address environmental factors that fall under our control, expanding that notion to include factors such as policies and procedures that adversely impact the participation of students with disabilities, or attitudes and beliefs that constrain our approaches to problems. The WHO model, based on a biopsychosocial model of disability, provides a concrete foundation for accommodation by helping to define both the barriers to participation of students with disabilities, and facilitators or accommodations that promote inclusion and success.

World Health Organization (2001) International classification of functions, disability and health. WHO: Geneva

Outline of the Handbook

The handbook is divided into seven sections and is designed to provide information about the processes and procedures in a comprehensive and compact format. The first section deals with the "process" of assessing and accommodating students with disabilities. This section begins with the admission process and concludes with examinations. Later sections of the handbook describe the role of faculty members, the legal context for providing services, and a list of staff who will assist. The handbook concludes with descriptions of recognized disabilities and provides some instructional tips for faculty members. The later sections dealing with specific disabilities and teaching strategies may be useful for faculty who need to deal with particular students.

An abundance of information is available on various disabilities and effective learning/teaching strategies. Staff in Queen's Disability Services Office, Library Services for Students with Disabilities, Information Technology Services, and Health, Counselling and Disability Services would be pleased to provide others in the community with further information to assist them in working with students.

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