Common Disabilities

The information below is an introduction, rather than an exhaustive list of conditions. Please contact us if you wish to gain further insight on specific disabilities. If you want to learn more about each disability, you will find a list of links on our specific disability resources page.

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Students with ADHD often have difficulty sustaining attention and maintaining focus while attending to lectures or reading. This can negatively impact their academic performance, beyond what is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development. They may also struggle with executive functions such as concentration, following directions, time management, setting priorities, and organizing their academic life.

These students may benefit from extended time testing in a distraction-reduced test space.

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Learning Disabilities

Characteristics of a learning disability include a marked discrepancy between intellectual capacity and achievement that is attributed to neurological difficulties in perceiving and/or processing auditory, visual, and/or special information. It is important to note that a learning disability is not indicative of an intellectual deficiency. Disorders such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are included in this disability category.

Students with learning disabilities benefit from a number of accommodations, strategies, and assistive technology. Typical accommodations include use of a computer with spell check, calculator, extended time testing, permission to audio record lectures, and assistive technology devices and software programs such as Kurzweil 3000.

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Mobility Disabilities

Students with mobility impairments require the instructor to be mindful of classroom accessibility and equal opportunities to participate. Depending upon the nature of the physical disability, students may need the following accommodations:

  • Extended exam time
  • Accessible table/seating
  • Assistive technology/software
  • A student assistant for participation in laboratory sessions

Students who use wheelchairs or crutches may fatigue easily and find it difficult to arrive to class within time constraints imposed by class schedules. Occasional lateness may be unavoidable. Flexibility in attendance policies may be necessary due to transportation problems, inclement weather, or elevator or wheelchair breakdown.

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Medical Disabilities

Students with medical disabilities, often hidden, include conditions such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Orthopedic limitations
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Seizure disorder

These students may experience impairments on an episodic basis or experience limited energy. Appropriate accommodations may include extended exam time, assignment and/or absence leniency.

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Psychiatric Disabilities

Students diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorders may require sensitivity due to the episodic nature of their impairments. Depression may be wrongly attributed to inattention, irritability, and apathy. Anxiety may impede concentration and be characterized by withdrawal, fear, and panic.

Academic acommodations are determined on an individualized basis. Disability Resources partners with the University Counseling Center to support students, and welcomes notification of any observations that cause concern.

The Student Support Services team in the Office of the Dean of Students encourages the use of the CARE System to report student concerns.

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Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Students returning to college after serving in the military may require disability accommodations due to traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. These students may exhibit qualities of any combination of the above disabilities.

Accommodations may include extended time testing and breaks without time penalty.

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Visual Impairments

Depending upon the severity of the visual impairment, students may need one or more of the following accommodations:

  • Specialized equipment
  • Student assistants in laboratory settings
  • Texts in alternate formats for use with screen reading software
  • Class materials in large print
  • Front row seating

Disability Resources may also offer extended time testing in an alternate location to allow for the use of adaptive equipment for exams. Instructors may consider alternate assessment methods as well, such as oral exams.

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Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Students with a range of hearing loss (from completely Deaf to hard of hearing) may participate in your class either using ASL interpreters, FM Systems, CART (Communications Access Realtime Translation), or a combination of these services depending upon the nature of your course.

These students may require a front row seat. If your student has a sign language interpreter, remember to direct any conversation you have to the student. Notes service is a common accommodation in conjunction with sign language interpreters.

If you have Deaf or hard of hearing students in your class, be sure to select captioned films when showing videos to the class. See the resources available on our "Creating Accessible Course Materials" page. 

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Our student athletes sometimes suffer concussions and are referred to Disability Resources by their athletic trainer or academic advisor when the effects of the injury are prolonged and may potentially impact their academic performance. Depending upon the severity of symptoms, students may require accommodations in the form of extended deadlines, exam accommodations, and excused absences.

Students may opt to ask Disability Resources to coordinate with their instructors on plans to resume academic studies.

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Autism Spectrum Disorders 

[From "Faculty Guide for Working with Students with Asperger Syndrome", an appendix in Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel, by Lorraine E. Wolf, Jane Thierfeld Brown, and G. Ruth Kukiela Bork]:

Asperger Syndrome is a developmental disorder that is characterized by deficits in social skills, communication, and unusual repetitive behaviors. It is sometimes referred to as "high-functioning autism." The core feature appears to be the individual's inability to understand the thoughts, feelings and motivations of other people and to use this understanding to regulate his or her own behaviors.

The following characteristics are typical in an individual with Asperger Syndrome. Due to the diversity and complexity of this disability, you may not see all of these characteristics in a given student. It is important to understand these characteristics, because they can result in behaviors that are easy to misinterpret. Often behaviors that seem odd or unusual or even rude are in fact unintentional symptoms of AS.

General Characteristics

  • Frequent errors in interpreting others' body language, intentions or facial expressions
  • Difficulty understanding the motives and perceptions of others
  • Problems asking for help
  • Motor clumsiness, unusual body movements and/or repetitive behavior
  • Difficulty with the big picture, perseverate on the details (can't see the forest for the trees)
  • Difficulties with transitions and changes in schedule
  • Wants things "just so"
  • Problems with organization (including initiating, planning, carrying out, and finishing tasks)
  • Deficits in abstract thinking (concrete, focuses on irrelevant details, difficulty generalizing)
  • Unusual sensitivity to touch, sounds, and visual details, may experience sensory overload

Functional Impact

Communication and Social Skills

  • Difficulty in initiating and sustaining connected relationships
  • Poor or unusual eye contact
  • Problems understanding social rules (such as personal space)
  • Impairment of two-way interaction (may seem to talk "at you" rather than "with you")
  • Conversation and questions may be tangential or repetitive
  • Restricted interests that may be unusual and sometimes become a rigid topic for social conversation
  • Unusual speech intonation, volume, rhythm, and/or rate
  • Literal understanding of language (difficulty interpreting words with double meaning, confused by metaphors and sarcasm)

Some Tips

  • Don't use absolute words such as "always" or "never" unless that is exactly what you mean
  • Supplement oral with written instructions when revising assignments, dates, etc.
  • Use clear directives and establish rules if…
    • A student invades your space or imposes on your time
    • The student's classroom comments or conversational volume become inappropriate


  • Information in papers may be redundant, returning to the same topic focus repeatedly
  • Student may be able to state facts and details, but be greatly challenged by papers requiring
    • Taking another's point of view
    • Synthesizing information to arrive at a larger concept
    • Comparing and contrasting to arrive at the "big picture"
    • Using analogies, similes, or metaphors

Some Tips

  • Use clear and detailed directives when referring to revisions that need to be made
  • Listing or numbering changes on the paper will provide guidelines for students when working
  • If modeling writing rules, write them on a separate sheet for future reference
  • Keep directions simple and declarative
  • Ask students to repeat directions in their own words to check comprehension

Some Considerations

Students may have sophisticated and impressive vocabulary and excellent rote memory but may have difficulty with high-level thinking and comprehension skills. They can give the impression that they understand, when in reality they may be repeating what they have heard or read. Many individuals with Asperger Syndrome are visual learners. Pictures and graphs may be helpful to them.

Instructional Tips

  • Clearly define course requirements, the dates of exams and when assignments are due. Provide advance notice of any changes.
  • Teach to generalize and to consolidate information.
  • Go for gist, meaning, and patterns. Don't get bogged down in details.
  • Use scripts and teach strategies selectively.
  • Make sure all expectations are direct and explicit. Don't require students to "read between the lines" to glean your intentions. Don't expect the student to automatically generalize instructions. Provide direct feedback to the student when you observe areas of academic difficulty.
  • Encourage use of resources designed to help students with study skills, particularly organizational skills.
  • Avoid idioms, double meaning, and sarcasm, unless you plan to explain your usage.
  • If the student has poor handwriting, allow use of a computer if easier for the student.
  • Use the student's preoccupying interest to help focus/motivate the student. Suggest ways to integrate this interest into the course, such as related paper topics.
  • Make sure the setting for tests takes into consideration any sensitivity to sound, light, touch, etc.

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