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San Diego State University

Student Ability Success Ctr

Understanding Disabilities

According to the Census 2000, almost 50 million people (about 19 percent of all Americans over age five) reported having a disability. Among children and youth under age 21, the percentage receiving federally mandated education services for students with disabilities has steadily risen to 13 percent or 6 million students in 2000. Students with LD constitute the largest single group and range in various studies from 46 percent to 61 percent of all students with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities who have completed high school has increased from 61 percent in 1986 to 78 percent in 2001. These students increasingly graduate with standard diplomas and are academically qualified to attend higher education.

About 9 percent of all undergraduates in higher education report having a disability, a percentage that has tripled in the last two decades. This amounts to about 1.3 million students.  (The Institute for Higher Education Policy, Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (PDF).

Disability Type

The US General Accounting Office reports the following statistics for students with disabilities in Postsecondary undergraduate programs.

Percentage Distribution of Main Type of Disability among Postsecondary (Undergraduate) Students with Disabilities, 2000, 2004, and 2008
Main type of disability 2000 2004 2008
Mental, emotional, or psychiatric condition/depression 17.1% 22.3% 24.3%
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) 6.7% 11.6% 19.1%
Orthopedic or mobility impairment 29% 24.8% 15.1%
Other 13.2% 5.8% 15%
Specific learning disability, dyslexia 5% 7.7% 8.9%
Hearing impairment 6.8% 4.7% 6.1%
Health impairment or problem 15.1% 17.3% 5.8%
Blindness or visual impairment 5.2% 3.7% 2.7%
Speech or language impairment 0.3% 0.5% 0.7%
Brain injury 1.2% 1% 1.7%
Developmental disability 0.6% 0.6% 0.7%
Source: GAO analysis of NPSAS 2000, 2004, and 2008.
Note: In 2000, “mental illness/depression” was one type of disability. In 2004 and 2008 these terms were separated into two distinct categories. However, for the purposes of comparison with 2000 data, we have combined these two categories in the 2004 and 2008 data.

A disability may or may not affect the participation of a student in your class. In postsecondary settings, students are the best source of information regarding their special needs. They are responsible for disclosing their disabilities and requesting accommodations. To create a welcome environment, include a statement on your class syllabus inviting students who require accommodations to meet with you. For example, "If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact me as soon as possible."

Flexibility and effective communication between student and instructor are key in approaching accommodations. Although students with similar disabilities may require different accommodations, it is useful for faculty to be aware of typical strategies for working with students who have various types of impairments. With this basic knowledge you will be better prepared to ask students to clarify their needs and to discuss accommodation requests.

Examples are listed below, followed by links to more detailed information.

Learning Disabilities are documented disabilities that may affect reading, processing information, remembering, calculating, and spatial abilities. Examples of accommodations for students who have specific learning disabilities include:

  • Notetakers and/or audiotaped class sessions, captioned films
  • Extra exam time, alternative testing arrangements
  • Visual, aural, and tactile instructional demonstrations
  • Computer with speech output, spellchecker, and grammar checker
Mobility Impairments may make walking, sitting, bending, carrying, or using fingers, hands or arms difficult or impossible. Mobility impairments result from many causes, including amputation, polio, club foot, scoliosis, spinal cord injury, and cerebral palsy. Typical accommodations for students with mobility impairments include:
  • Notetaker, lab assistant, group lab assignments
  • Classrooms, labs, and field trips in accessible locations
  • Adjustable tables, lab equipment located within reach
  • Class assignments made available in electronic format
  • Computer equipped with special input device (e.g., speech input, Morse code, alternative keyboard)

Health Impairments affect daily living and involve the lungs, kidneys, heart, muscles, liver, intestines, immune systems, and other body parts (e.g., cancer, kidney failure, AIDS). Typical accommodations for students who have health impairments include:

  • Notetaker or copy of another student's notes
  • Flexible attendance requirements and extra exam time
  • Assignments made available in electronic format, use of email to facilitate communication

Psychiatric Conditions includes mental health and psychiatric disorders that affect daily living. Examples of accommodations for students with these conditions include:

  • Notetaker, copy of another student's notes, or recording of lectures
  • Extended time on assignments and tests
  • A non-distracting, quiet setting for assignments and tests

Hearing Impairments may make it difficult or impossible to hear or understand lecturers, access multimedia materials, and participate in discussions. Examples of accommodations for students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have an auditory processing disorder, include:

  • Interpreter, real-time captioning, FM system, notetaker
  • Open or closed-captioned films, use of visual aids
  • Written assignments, lab instructions, demonstration summaries
  • Visual warning system for lab emergencies
  • Use of electronic mail for class and private discussions
  • Preferential seating and the elimination of unnecessary background noise

Blindness refers to the disability of students who cannot read printed text, even when enlarged. Typical accommodations include:

  • Audiotaped, Brailled or electronic-formatted lecture notes, handouts, and texts
  • Verbal descriptions of visual aids
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials
  • Braille lab signs and equipment labels, auditory lab warning signals
  • Adaptive lab equipment (e.g., talking thermometers and calculators, light probes, and tactile timers)
  • Computer with optical character reader, speech output, Braille screen display and printer output


Low Vision refers to students who have some usable vision, but cannot read standard-size text, have field deficits (for example, cannot see peripherally or centrally but can see well in other ranges), or other visual impairments. Typical accommodations include:

  • Seating near front of class
  • Large print handouts, lab signs, and equipment labels
  • TV monitor connected to microscope to enlarge images
  • Class assignments made available in electronic format
  • Computer equipped to enlarge screen characters and images

The material above is reproduced courtesy of the DO-IT Program from University of Washington.  Please visit their website for additional information: