How to handle disability cases?

This is a complex and broad topic. There are a variety of disabilities that our students may have and a diverse range of accommodations that the student may need. There are also other important factors like if the student is aware of the disability or not, and if aware, if the student acknowledges it or not.

So, where to begin?

First, you don’t have to figure this out alone. In RHET, we have a faculty member (Sherine Zaki) who liaises between our department and the Office of Student Wellbeing, and who is able to help RHET faculty in handling disability or suspected disability cases.

Common Types of Disability Scenarios

Before getting into the details of how to handle situations, it is good to know the five major types of disability scenarios you might face. 

  1. The student has been officially diagnosed with a disability, has been evaluated at AUC to determine appropriate educational accommodations, has an accommodation letter from AUC, and has given you (the instructor) that letter.
  2. The student has been officially diagnosed, and may or may not have gotten an accommodation letter, but has not revealed this disability or accommodation needs to you.
  3. The student may or may not have been officially diagnosed, but identifies him/herself as having a disability, but does not have an accommodation letter.
  4. The student has not been officially diagnosed, but suspects that they have a disability, but does not reveal this to you.
  5. The student has not been officially diagnosed, and is not aware that they have a disability, but the student does indeed have a disability and that disability affects their classroom ability.

There are other possible situations you will encounter, but these are the five most common situations that a RHET instructor is likely to face. Each of these needs to be handled differently. But here are some principles that work for all situations.

Common Principles for all Disability Situations

First, you need to emphasize to your students at the start of the semester that if anyone has any disabilities that might affect their classroom ability that you invite them to talk with you as soon as possible so that a plan of action can be determined. You need to make this known in a non-threating and welcoming manner. The sooner a student talks to you the better!

Second, as instructors, it is not our job to diagnose a student’s disabilities. Students, in order to get official classroom accommodations, need to visit the Office of Student Wellbeing. This office will guide the students through the proper steps for a professional diagnosis and will evaluate to see if any educational accommodations are needed. Accordingly, if a student has not gone to the Office of Student Wellbeing, and they say they have a disability, then we need to direct the student to visit that office.

Third, if a student has an accommodation letter, then we are obligated to give those accommodations. Since there are many different types of disabilities, there are many possible accommodations that might be needed. Learning how to do these accommodations might present some challenges. To figure out how to do this, you will probably need to meet with the student at the start of the semester and maybe throughout the semester to discuss their needs and their accommodation strategies. You might also find that talking with Sherine can help you in this area. The Office of Student Wellbeing is also available to talk with instructors, but such a meeting, if needed, is best after having met first with the student and Sherine

Fourth, the second and third points above tell us what is official and what must be done, however, we are allowed to go above and beyond. We can give accommodations beyond what is listed in a letter, and we can even give accommodations when no official letter is presented. This can be done when you feel that a student needs some special accommodation in order to give them an equal educational opportunity. This obviously needs to be done wisely and with discretion, but your hands are not tied when you can clearly see that a student needs some special accommodation and yet doesn’t yet have an official accommodation letter. However, this should not replace you strongly encouraging them towards visiting the Office of Student Wellbeing.

Other Common Questions or Issues

What happens if I suspect a student has a disability?
When you suspect a student has a disability, but the student has not indicated that they have such a disability, this can be a delicate situation. The student might or might not know they have a disability, and if they know, have chosen not to share that with you. But if you are noticing the situation, then it is probably affecting the student’s classroom performance. In such a situation, it is usually ideal to try to have a conversation with a student. In this conversation, you should not say or indicate that they have a disability, but you can talk about student’s behaviors and action that are affecting their success in the classroom, and encourage them that there are resources (workshops, sessions, etc.) that might be able to help them, and therefore strongly encourage them to visit the Office of Student Wellbeing.

What happens if a student notifies me late in the semester about a disability?
Sometimes a student will let you know about a disability late in the semester. This can be difficult. If the student has an official accommodation letter, then you should start implementing it immediately, however you are under no obligation to implement it retroactively. If the student does not have an accommodation letter, then you should encourage them to immediately and urgently visit the Office for Student Wellbeing. In almost all cases, an instructor wishes they had known that information earlier, thus, an ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure, so you are encouraged to announce in class multiple times at the start of the semester and mention in your syllabus inviting any students who have or believe they have special needs or concerns to meet with you early in the semester.

Why did AUC know about the disability, but not notify me?
Students are not required to disclose disabilities. Disability information is confidential, and even though the Office of Student Wellbeing has maybe issued an accommodation letter, the office cannot reveal that to the instructor without the student’s permission. This can be frustrating to instructors, but there is often tremendous social stigma associated with disabilities, and students are often reluctant to reveal such information.

What happens if a student with disabilities is failing the course?
Sometimes you might have a student with a disability, and you are trying to accommodate, but the student is still failing. This happens sometimes. Students sometimes fail regardless of disability or accommodation. A student with a disability is still expected to do the work of the class and to perform at a level high enough to earn a passing grade. Like with any other student, if a student with a disability is failing, you are encouraged to invite him/her to meet with you to discuss reasons their reasons for failing and what resources the student may use to improve. If you and the student feel that the student is failing because of the disability or because of struggles with accommodations, then you should encourage the student to again meet with the Office of Student Wellbeing to see if adjustments in accommodations might be needed. You too are allowed to speak with the office to discuss the situation.

What happens if a student with a disability is frequently absent?
Talk with the student to discuss your concerns that absences are affecting class performance. Students with disabilities are expected to comply with class attendance policies. However, there are times when students are approved to have instructors relax class attendance policies for disability-related absences. If so, this will be documented in the student’s accommodation letter.

What happens if a student has a medical emergency, such as a seizure in my class?
While such situations are quite rare, an instructor should immediately contact the emergency number of AUC’s clinic # 4000 or emergency number of security # 4444.