Queen's University

Instructor's Handbook: Accommodating Students with Disabilities

7.7 Students With Chronic Illnesses

Chronic illness may include conditions such as cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, Crohn's disease, diabetes, HIV, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or other long-term illnesses. Such conditions are often worsened by stress and require careful pacing of a student's workload to minimize the possibility of an exacerbation of the disease. In some cases, a period of exacerbation results in permanent damage. Chronic illnesses share several symptoms which require accommodation in an academic setting:

  • Fatigue and limited physical endurance, due to the drain of energy on the person's body or the presence of chronic pain
  • Fluctuating capacity to participate in daily activities due to exacerbations and remissions of the disease itself
  • Difficulty concentrating due to emotional factors, medication side effects, or pain
  • Difficulty with mobility due to inflammation of joints, limited nerve function, or decreased strength
  • Periods of diminished productivity through the day, in the morning while waiting for medication to take effect, or late in the day after several hours of pain
  • Frequent absence from class due to all of the above

Chronic illness is particularly frustrating when students feel well enough to attempt their studies much of the time, and then meet with limitations when their illness coincides with time needed for preparing assignments, deadlines or exams. The students are able to continue on a limited basis or resume their studies, so a withdrawal is not necessary, but some flexibility is appropriate.

Instructional Strategies
  • Students with chronic illness often require notetakers to ensure that they have a complete set of notes to study from despite absence or difficulty copying all lecture material.
  • Hard copies of notes or overheads, handouts, references, etc. are very useful as students try to keep up.
  • It may be necessary that you help keep the student up-to-date on course material.
Communication Strategies
  • Students with chronic illness are often tired and physically uncomfortable, so conversations may be more effective in a private setting, with less ambient noise, while also providing a confidential environment. This may increase students' comfort, help them relax, and facilitate better communication.
Technological Accommodations
  • The use of computers is helpful to students with chronic illness, since it allows them to produce written work with as little physical exertion as possible and permits energy-saving shortcuts to editing and on-screen enlargement. Having a computer lab for exams and computers at home facilitates individualized pacing of their work by removing the constraints of working on the same schedule as peers in exams or on assignments.
  • Access to library or Internet resources from home via modem or ethernet connection facilitates individualized pacing of work and reduces the need to come to campus, saving both energy and time.
  • Recording of lectures may help the student to review material presented quickly without taking additional time in class.
Assignment Accommodations
  • Tutoring may be required at various times, either to supplement missed lectures or to explain material students could not attend to at a particular time due to their illness.
  • Flexibility with deadlines is often necessary.
Examination Accommodations
  • Extra time on exams or tests to allow for washroom breaks, position changes to alleviate pain, and pacing of work to avoid excessive fatigue are often necessary.
  • Writing exams or tests in an area separated from the class helps by decreasing the environmental distractions to be screened out, thereby reducing fatigue and allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge effectively.

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