Understanding Disabilities

ADA Definition

A person with a disability is defined as any person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, seeing, hearing, speaking, moving, working, performing manual tasks or learning. These limitations may be visible or invisible.

Individual Types of Disabilities

ADHD is a neurological disorder that presents as a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development, has symptoms presenting in two or more settings (e.g. at home, school, or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities), and negatively impacts directly on social, academic or occupational functioning. Individuals with ADHD may present with both inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity, or one symptom pattern may predominate. Although ADHD manifest itself differently in each individual, common characteristics include:

  • Difficulty with time management and organizational skills
  • Impulsivity resulting in poor decision- making
  • Inattentiveness
  • Easily distracted and difficulty concentrating
  • Procrastination
  • Interrupting or blurting out
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty with note taking skills
  • Weak working memory or speed of processing

While medication is often prescribed for students who have ADHD to help alleviate some of the above symptoms, accommodations may also be needed. Students with ADHD are most successful when they are provided an organized syllabus with detailed instructions and given clear expectations for class attendance, class participation, tests, and assignments. Extended time for testing in a distraction-reduced environment, assistance with note taking, tutoring, time management mentoring and study strategy assistance are accommodations and services that also benefit students with ADHD.

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs an individual's ability to communicate and interact with others. Individuals with ASD also have great difficulty developing appropriate peer relationships due to their inability to understand other's implicit intentions and subtle social nuances. It is extremely important to remember that students with ASD do desire to have positive peer relationships; they simply lack the innate ability to negotiate the extremely complex realm of social interactions.

Another common characteristic of persons with ASD is a range of idiosyncratic behaviors. They tend to develop intense pre-occupations with specific areas of interest. Areas of interest tend to revolve around transportation, electronics, computers, science, and mathematics. While the college campus is a great place to pursue these interests, students with ASD tend to immerse themselves in the interests to such an extent that it dominates their conversations and time. Other idiosyncratic behaviors may include repetitive motor patterns and vocal tics during times of stress. In order to avoid some stress, students with ASD tend to develop strict routines and rituals in their lives. They need these often intricate routines and rituals so that they can establish some predictability in the ever-changing, complex world.

In general, these students tend to have good cognitive and academic abilities. They are highly visual learners. Many adults with ASD describe their learning as a series of pictures in their heads. They are able to see the pictures of the information when asked to recall it. They work best with factual information. They tend to have very good visual memory. They have a hard time, however, with academic tasks involving problem-solving, synthesis of information, and understanding another's perspective. Group projects and team work can be particularly stressful to a student with ASD.

Persons with ASD report a wide range of sensory challenges. They can be hypersensitive to sounds; often hearing and being distracted by low intensity sounds such as the hum of a computer or alarms down the street. They can also be overwhelmed by the complexity of noise in large group social settings to such a degree that they are unable to distinguish one voice over the noise. They might also have hypersensitive responses to touch and texture, lighting, and smells. Interestingly enough, they may have lowered responses to temperature and pain.

Keep in mind that ASD is a broad spectrum disorder. Every person presents the disability differently. The previous descriptions are meant to be a general overview of possible manifestations of the syndrome. When a student identifies himself to you as having ASD, it is very important to talk with him or her about the following:

  • particular strengths and needs
  • areas of interest
  • specific sensory sensitivities
  • trigger points
  • coping strategies
  • calming techniques

Getting to know each person as an individual will allow you to best meet their needs in the classroom setting.

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Work to minimize sensory distractions within the classroom. Remove auditory and visual distractions if possible. Seat them away from windows or overhead projectors. People with autism spectrum disorders often report that florescent lights are highly distracting because they can visually see the flickering of the lights. Consider turning off overhead lights if it is possible.
  • Set clear expectations for class attendance, class participation, tests, and assignments. Clear, concise written expectations are best.
  • If the student becomes disruptive to the flow of the class (i.e., asking too many questions or providing too much factual information), speak with the student individually after class. Explain in clear and specific terms what behaviors are expected in your classroom.
  • Establish a quiet area for the student to go if he or she becomes overwhelmed or distressed during class. This should be a place where they can quickly go in order to calm when stress and anxiety have been triggered in class.
  • If group projects are required in your class, establish a clear role for the student with ASD within his/her group. Note-taker or researcher might be good roles. Another option would be to allow the student to work individually on the project.
  • If possible, use the student's area of interest for research or class projects. Highlight his or her areas of strengths in the classroom setting.
  • Provide extended time for tests especially if they require problem-solving or synthesis of information.
  • If possible, provide short answer or multiple choice tests rather than essay format.

A hearing impairment is a hearing loss that prevents a person from partially or totally receiving sounds through the ear. Hearing loss from a slight deficiency affects approximately 19 million Americans while total deafness affects two million.

The age of onset generally determines the profundity of the disability. Those who are born deaf or suffer a hearing loss at an early age, especially in the pre-lingual stage, bear the most severe impact. Because they do not hear language, their impairments generally extend beyond hearing to speaking and reading. For the deaf who can speak, vocal control is often marred, distorting their tone, volume and/or articulation.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing use a variety of devices to help them improve their aural capacity or substitute for it. Many use lip reading but, by itself, comprehension is only 30 to 40 percent of spoken English. Those with a sufficient degree of residual hearing are helped by the amplification provided by hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other amplification systems.

The main form of communication for the profoundly deaf is sign language. For the many who use sign language, English is a second language and may therefore, be faulty in most aspects of communications. These secondary effects of hearing impairments need to be understood as physical disabilities rather than intellectual weakness. Students who rely on sign language need an interpreter, who translates what is being said into a preferred form of sign language.

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Auditory Lecture Intake - Instructors should face the class as much as possible while lecturing in order to allow the student to lip read and get visual cues from the face to enhance comprehension. Instructors should be careful that light sources do not interfere with seeing their face. They should speak clearly and audibly. Placing key phrases on the board and repeating questions asked by other students is also helpful.
  • Attention - At the beginning of a classroom presentation and following breaks, draw the student's attention before speaking.
  • Seating Location - Students will need to sit close to the speaker for maximum intake of visual cues.
  • Audiovisual Materials - All audiovisual learning materials required to be viewed by students should be captioned (see resources for Zoom captioning or email ats@odu.edu). Instructors should use at least a minimum amount of lighting when presenting information so their face, or the interpreter's, can be seen at all times. They should allow time for the student's gaze to shift from the visual materials to the instructor or interpreter for verbal explanation. Supplying the student, in advance, with a written explanation of a demonstration or facilitating independent viewing time for audio-visual materials is another helpful option.
  • Assignments - Students with hearing impairments need to receive assignments in written form in order to insure proper understanding of the requirements. A detailed syllabus and lecture outline will be extremely beneficial. If the hearing impairment involves language difficulties, allow extended time for reading assignments and examinations.
  • Acoustics - Students using a hearing aid may find the instructor's voice masked by excessive background noise. If problems continue, room changes, an interpreter (who repeats a lecture at close visual range), or auditory training equipment (to bring the lecturer's voice directly into the hearing aid) may be utilized.
  • Exams - Avoid orally administered exams requiring written answers.
  • Technical Words - Providing the interpreter and student with a list of technical words at the beginning of the semester will allow them time to develop or learn signs for those words.
  • Interpreters - The student and faculty members should meet with the interpreter at the beginning of the semester to discuss potential problem areas. At this time the interpreter can better explain the process of interpreting and answer any questions the instructor might have. The instructor should speak directly to the student even when their conversation is mediated by an interpreter. Faculty should monitor a severely hearing impaired student's progress during the first few weeks to insure that newly learned concepts are clear. Tutors may be available through Student Support Services if difficulty is perceived.

A learning disability is a neurological condition that interferes with a person's ability to store, process, or produce information. Those with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence, but it can affect one's ability to read, write, speak, spell, compute math, reason, and can also impact memory, coordination, social skills and emotional maturity.

Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities:

College students with learning disabilities are as intelligent, talented, and capable as any other group of students. Typically, they have developed a variety of strategies for compensating for their learning disability. (Individuals who come from divergent cultural and language backgrounds may exhibit many of the oral and written language behaviors cited below, but do not necessarily have a learning disability by definition.)

The degree of severity of the disability varies from individual to individual. People with learning disabilities may exhibit some of the following characteristics:

  • Reading Skills
    • Slow reading rate/or difficulty moderating reading rate in accordance with material's level of difficulty
    • Confusion of similar words, difficulty integrating new vocabulary, and incomplete mastery of basic phonetic skills
    • Skipping words or lines of printed material
    • Difficulty reading for long periods of time
    • Comprehension weakness due to slow fluency
  • Writing Skills
    • Frequent spelling errors (e.g., omissions, substitutions, transpositions), especially in specialized and foreign vocabulary
    • Difficulty effectively proofreading writing and making revisions
    • Poor penmanship (e.g., poorly-formed letters, incorrect usage of capitalization, trouble with spacing, overly-large writing)
    • Inability to correctly copy from a book or blackboard
    • Difficulty with organizing content
  • Oral Language Skills
    • Difficulty in translating into oral expression concepts that are understood
    • Difficulty following oral or written directions
    • Difficult conversing or following a conversation about an unfamiliar idea
    • Inability to concentrate on and to comprehend spoken language when presented rapidly
  • Mathematical Skills
    • Difficulty reading and copying numbers and/or symbols correctly
    • Transpositions of numbers in sequences
    • Difficulty with memory for formulas
    • Difficulty distinguishing between visual symbols (e.g., x and +)

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Provide students with a detailed course syllabus. Make it available before the start of classes.
  • Clearly spell out expectations at the beginning of the course (e.g., grading, material to be covered, due dates).
  • Start each lecture with an outline of material to be covered that period. At the conclusion of class, briefly summarize key points.
  • Present new or technical vocabulary on the blackboard or use a student handout. Terms used in context will give them greater meaning.
  • Give assignments orally as well as in written form. This will eliminate confusion regarding due dates and content.
  • Allow the student to tape record lectures.
  • Provide study questions for exams that demonstrate the format, as well as the content of tests. Explain what constitutes a good answer and why.
  • Permit use of simple calculators, scratch paper, and electronic or conventional spellers' dictionaries during class sessions and testing.
  • Provide adequate opportunities for questions and answers, including review sessions.
  • If possible, select a textbook with an accompanying study guide for optional student use.
  • Periodically review previously learned mathematical concepts and skills.
  • Allow students to utilize formula cards during testing.
  • Referral to Student Support Services for note takers and tutors.
  • Testing accommodations.
  • Access to a special section of Spanish 101.
  • Use of assistive technology.

Any medical condition that impacts a person's ability to perform major life activities including a wide range of bodily functions. The medical disability can be episodic, in remission or chronically impacting a person on a daily basis. Medical disabilities among students include but are not limited to Sickle Cell Anemia, Diabetes, Crohn's Disease, seizure disorder, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. Side effects from medications can also impact a person's ability to perform a major life activity.


  • Allowing for unanticipated class absences
  • Housing accommodations or transportation assistance due to temperature sensitivity
  • Might require short breaks and snacks during lecture
  • Extra time to complete assignments
  • Extended time for test taking


Because cancer can occur in almost any organ system of the body, the symptoms and particular disabling effects will vary greatly from one person to another. Some people experience visual problems, lack of balance and coordination, joint pains, backaches, headaches, abdominal pains, drowsiness, lethargy, difficulty in breathing and swallowing, weakness, bleeding or anemia.

The primary treatments for cancer, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery may engender additional effects. Therapy can cause violent nausea, drowsiness and/or fatigue, affecting academic functioning or causing absences. Surgery can result in amputation, paralysis, sensory deficits, and language and memory problems.


This Metabolic disorder is characterized by insulin deficiency and excess blood sugar. Diabetes can be controlled by insulin injections and by strict diet.

The strictness of diet forces the individual to eat at regular intervals. Therefore, it is possible that a student may need to eat during class if the class is scheduled during mealtime.

The insulin dependent diabetic, or a person who has had diabetes for years, often has concurrent visual deficits and may have and may have impaired tactile sensation. These may be necessary factors to consider when preparing a classroom experience for the student.


Students with epilepsy and other seizure disorders are extremely reluctant to divulge their condition because of the fear of being misunderstood or stigmatized. Misconceptions about these disorders - that they are forms of mental illness, contagious, and untreatable, for example, have arisen because their ultimate causes remain uncertain. There is evidence that hereditary factors may be involved and that brain injuries and tumors, occurring at any age, may give rise to seizures.

There are three distinct types of seizures:

  1. Petit mal means "little seizure" and is characterized by eye blinking or staring. It begins abruptly with a sudden dimming of consciousness and may last only a few seconds. Whatever the person is doing is suspended for a moment but resumed again as soon as the seizure is over. Often, because of its briefness, the seizure may go unnoticed by the individual as well as by others.
  2. Psychomotor seizures range from mild to severe and may include staring, mental confusion, uncoordinated and random movement, incoherent speech and behavior outburst, followed by immediate recovery. They may last from two minutes to a half hour. The person may have no recollection of what happened, but may experience fatigue.
  3. Grand mal seizures may be moderate to severe and may be characterized by generalized contractions of muscles, twitching and limb jerking. A few minutes of such movements may be followed by unconsciousness, sleep, or extreme fatigue.

Students with seizure disorders are often using preventive medication, which may cause drowsiness and temporary memory problems. Such medication makes it unlikely that a seizure will occur in class.

In the event of a grand mal seizure, follow this procedure:

  • Keep calm. Although its manifestation may be intense, it is generally not painful to the individual.
  • Remove nearby objects that may injure the student during the seizure.
  • Help lower the person to the floor and place cushioning under his/her head.
  • Turn the head to the side so that breathing is not obstructed.
  • Loosen tight clothing.
  • Do not force anything between the teeth.
  • Do not try to restrain bodily movement.
  • Call the Campus Police (3-4000) or other appropriate authority (911) or ask someone else to do so.
  • After a seizure, instructors should deal forthrightly with the concerns of the class in an effort to forestall whatever negative attitudes may develop toward the student.


Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary disease primarily affecting African-Americans. It reduces the blood supply to vital organs and the oxygen supply to the blood cells, making adequate classroom ventilation an important concern.

Because many vital organs are affected, the student may also suffer from eye disease, heart condition, lung problems, and acute abdominal pain. At times limbs or joints may be affected. The disease is characterized by severe crisis periods, with extreme pain, which may necessitate hospitalization and/or absence from class. Completing academic assignments during these periods may not be possible. A reasonable accommodation in this case may be an incomplete for the semester.

Physical disability includes limitations of gross or fine motor functioning as a result of damage to the central nervous system, musculoskeletal deficits, genetic disorders, acquired medical conditions, and temporary or permanent injury. While the degree of disability varies, students may have difficulty getting to and from class, performing in class, and managing out-of-class assignments and tests.

The disabilities which can, and generally do, restrict mobility and motor functioning are:

  1. Cerebral Palsy - group of disabling conditions that result from damage to the central nervous system. The effects can be severe, causing an inability to control bodily movement, or the effects can be mild, perhaps only slightly affecting the speech or hearing. Persons with cerebral palsy who have gross motor dysfunction may walk with crutches or use a wheelchair. Their access to the environment may be restricted due to architecture which impedes travel such as entrances which do not accommodate their mobility aids.
  2. Arthritis - progressively degenerative disease which creates an inflammation of the joints. Many people with arthritis encounter mobility problems due to knee and ankle joint involvement. Additionally, fine motor control is often impaired, making writing difficult and/or painful.
  3. Congenital defects - impairments existing from birth, which may include the total or partial loss of limbs or require the use of prostheses. Personal mobility may require wheelchair use. The impairment of individual body functions may also exist.
  4. Degenerative disease - progressive illnesses. Multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy are two examples. These disabilities are degenerative and often call for eventual use of a wheelchair. Again, not only are gross motor functions impaired, but the deterioration of fine motor activity often develops.
  5. Spinal cord injury - injury involving damage to the spinal cord causing it to be either severely scarred or partially severed. Injury in relation to the vertebrae determines the amount of functioning the individual will retain. Information on spinal cord injury is detailed and lengthy. For the purpose of this publication, only highlights of descriptive information will be touched upon.
    • Quadriplegia - a spastic or flaccid paralysis of the upper and lower extremities. Arm and had impairment is dependent upon the location of the fractured vertebra. Most individuals require the use of a wheelchair.
    • Paraplegia - a spastic paralysis of the lower extremities. In this case, arm and hand function are intact, but ambulation is possible only in exceptional cases. Use of a wheelchair is nearly always necessary.
    • Hemiplegia - incomplete paralysis involving one side may result from either spinal cord injury or stroke. Ambulation is sometimes possible with the use of aids.

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies

  • Note-taking assistance
  • Testing accommodations such as extra time, access to technology, or scribing
  • Emergency evacuation plan
  • Access to assistive technology
  • Curb cuts and ramps
  • Dedicated parking spaces
  • Integrate seating arrangements in the regular classroom as much as possible
  • Occasionally classes are relocated to accessible classrooms
  • Might require a personal assistance to accompany to classroom
  • Housing accommodations

Students with psychological disabilities present some of the most difficult challenges to the college professor. These disabilities cover a wide range of mental health disorders that can negatively impact a person's daily functioning and behavior. Like those with other disabilities, their disability may be hidden and, in fact, latent, with little or no effect on their learning. However, they might appear fine and happy one day, then the next day be dysfunctional. Their disability might manifest itself in seemingly adverse behavior ranging from indifference and recalcitrance to disruptive behavior.

The most common psychological disabilities among students are anxiety, panic disorder, depression, Bi-Polar Disorder and PTSD. The condition may be a temporary response to inordinate pressures at school, on the job, at home or in one's social life; or it may be more serious causing a pathological sense of hopelessness or helplessness which may provoke, in its extreme, threats or attempts at suicide.

Students who experience psychological disabilities may have difficulty concentrating, be chronically fatigued, appear apathetic or irritable, experience changes in eating, sleeping, and weight, mood swings, have test anxiety, be frequently absent from class or unable to complete assignments on time. In addition to the disability impacting daily functioning, the medications one takes to treat his/her illness often will have adverse side effects including nausea, fatigue, and cognitive impacts.

If a student in your class exhibits adverse behaviors possibly related to a psychological disorder:

  • Discuss inappropriate classroom behavior with the student privately, directly, and forthrightly, delineating if necessary the limits of acceptable conduct (see Code of Student Conduct)
  • In your discussions with the student, do not attempt to diagnose or treat the psychological disorder. Focus on the student's behavior in the course.
  • If you sense that discussion would not be effective, or if the student approaches you for therapeutic help, refer the student to the Office of Educational Accessibility, to the Office of Counseling Services, or to an appropriate community mental health agency, whichever is most acceptable to the student.
  • Promptly refer to the college's proper disciplinary or security channels any behavior by the student that may be abusive or threatening to self or others. Offices and telephone numbers are:
    • Campus Police: 757-683-4000
    • Counseling and Psychological Services: 757-683-4401
    • The Office of Educational Accessibility: 757-683-4655

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Excused absences and allowing to make up missed assignments/tests
  • Flexibility on due dates with in a time agreed upon by student and faculty
  • Extended time on tests/quizzes
  • Note Sharing Assistance
  • Preferential sitting

The student with a head injury may be recovering from some traumatic impact to the brain such as a severe concussion or may be rehabilitating from a stroke or similar cerebral disorder.

Head injury can be responsible for a number of significant changes in the student. Brain damage, depending upon the location and intensity of the injury, may affect motor coordination, sensation, perception, speech and language processing, and/or intelligence and memory.

The student is generally enrolled for less than full-time study and must spend a great deal of time with tutors and learning assistants.

Students with head injuries benefit from adaptations to academic testing. Extended time to complete exams outside of class is frequently necessary. Also, avoiding in-class questioning of the student is advisable unless the student volunteers. Immediate recall of facts is often very difficult. The pressure of in-class performance creates anxiety that further blocks recall.

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Personal and academic counseling and coaching
  • Extended time for test taking
  • Note Sharing Assistance
  • Use of formula sheet, calculator, or approved word bank when testing
  • Use of assistive technology
  • Extended time to complete assignments

Visual impairments vary from partial loss to total blindness. Persons are considered legally blind when visual acuity is 20/200 or less in the better eye with use of corrective lenses. Most legally blind persons have some vision. Others who are partially sighted may rely on residual vision with the use of adaptive equipment. A totally blind person may have visual memory. Its strength depends on the age when vision was lost, the extent of that visual impairment and the support required. Students may be virtually independent with the use of magnifying eyeglasses, or they may utilize a cane or service animal and require text readers, tape recorders, or audio textbooks.

Whatever the degree of impairment, visually impaired students should be expected to participate fully in classroom activities such as discussions and group work. To record notes, some use such devices as portable or computerized braillers. They may confront limitations in laboratory classes, field trips and internships, but with planning and adaptive equipment their difficulties can be minimized.

Accommodations & Instructional Strategies:

  • Note-taking - Students often tape record lectures. For this reason a student may need to sit close to the speaker to insure clear tapes (and to maximize any visual and auditory cues). Students who use Braille may also use a slate and stylus or portable braillers for note-taking. It will be helpful to the student if the instructor spells technical words when presented for the first time in lecture.
  • Visual Lecture Intake - Visually impaired students may miss all nonverbal cues unless they are explained by instructors. Intensive visual concentration can be fatiguing for visually impaired students.
  • Audiovisual Material (blackboard, projector) and Handouts - These require oral explanation. Instructors should be conscious of their use of descriptive terms. Copies of overhead materials should be provided electronically so that they can later be reviewed with a reader.
  • Classroom Changes - When classroom location is changed, another student should wait for the student who is blind and direct him/her to class. The student should be informed of any changes in arrangement of furniture or equipment.
  • Texts - When possible, materials are obtained in Braille or on tape from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. Often texts must be ordered well in advance to allow preparation time.
  • Time Involvement - Because of the time necessary to have books read aloud or to review tapes, students often require extra time to complete required assignments, especially when library research is involved.
  • Research Papers - Students and faculty may want to consider the texts already on tape when deciding on topics for a research paper. Catalogs listing taped are available through Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.
  • Last Minute Assignments - Instructors should keep in mind that this can present a problem because special preparation of material requires adequate advance notice.
  • Field Trips, Internship - Preplanning will be needed in order to consider adaptations that may be necessary.
  • Service Animals - Service animals are well-trained working tools for students who use them. They will not be disruptive in class and people should be informed that the dog should not be petted or played with while in a harness. For more information visit the Service Animal webpage.