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People Helping People: The Essence of Accommodation

Most people strive to be gracious and sensitive when accommodating another person's needs. Sometimes, though, accommodation needs can be met with miscommunication, awkwardness, or marginalization. Accordingly, it's important to reflect on ways of ensuring that everyone — no matter what their needed accommodation is — feels welcome, included, and respected. 

Physical spaces

  • Ensure spaces (i.e., classrooms, labs, and instructor's offices) are configured in such a way that a person with a mobility device has easy access. Remove obstacles and arrange furniture to give clear passage. 
  • If a conversation is expected to last longer than a few moments and the space you are using is not able to accommodate a mobility device easily, suggest an area nearby that is comfortable for all parties. 
  • Field trips and transportation need to be planned with accessibility in mind. Contact AccessAbility Services to discuss potential considerations and to seek advice on changes you may need to make. Plan activities at accessible locations so that all students can participate, or, as a last resort, substitute an alternative activity with the same learning outcomes. Provide additional time for the activity and for transportation.
  • Consider an assistive device as an extension of the person’s personal space.

Interaction

  • When you approach a person with a visual impairment make sure you identify yourself and speak directly to them. Do not assume that the person cannot see you. 
  • If you are leaving a room or the presence of someone with a visual disability, be sure to let them know that you are leaving and whether or not you will be returning. 
  • Some people with learning disabilities may take a little longer to understand and respond, so exercise patience.
  • Speak normally, clearly and directly to the person in front of you.
  • Listen carefully and work with the person to provide information in a way that will best suit their needs.
  • Remember that not all students are comfortable with direct eye contact.
  • If students are having trouble communicating, avoid making remarks such as: “Slow down,” “Take a breath,” or “Relax.” This will not be helpful and may be interpreted as demeaning. Avoid finishing the person’s sentences, or guessing what is being said. This can increase their feelings of self-consciousness.
  • If you haven’t understood, do not pretend that you have; ask the person to repeat the information. 
  • Language matters. For more information on language use and disability, read the Syracuse University Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment

Offering assistance

  • If someone needs mobility assistance, offer your arm to guide the person, but allow them the time to tell you whether they do or do not want help. Be precise and clear when giving directions or verbal information. For example, if you are guiding someone with a visual disability and you are approaching a door or an obstacle, say so; identify landmarks or other details to orient the person to their environment. 
  • Avoid making assumptions or generalizations about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do, or trying to diagnose them. The best assumption you can make is that all students are capable and competent.
  • Make students with service animals feel welcome in your office or classroom. Avoid talking to or petting a service animal, as this distracts the animal from its tasks.
  • Ask permission before touching anyone, unless it is an emergency.
  • If you are not sure what to do, simply ask, "Can I help?" 

Translation

  • When speaking to a student with a hearing impairment, make sure you are in a well-lit area where the person can see your face. Try to hold your conversation in a quiet area, as background noise may be distracting. 
  • If you are communicating through an American Sign Language interpreter, look at and speak directly to the student, not their interpreter. Speak as you normally would.
  • Repetition, clear enunciation, and plain language can help everyone you speak with.

​Protocols

  • If a student who is not registered with AccessAbility Services discloses to you that they need an individual accommodation, refer them to the appropriate process in your institution, but also make the effort to accommodate their needs, just as you would for any student.
  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. But also let them know that you do not need to know what their disability is in order to make your classroom and your teaching fully accessible. You can do this both verbally early in the semester and by having an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that such conversations are confidential and are strictly for the purpose of facilitating any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place. Too often, the disability statement on the syllabus is the only time disability is addressed in the class, and this only ensures that stigma persists and that accommodations are a secondary concern.

Accessible teaching materials

Presentations and lectures 

  • When presenting to or teaching a group of people, consider the tips discussed above about space, interaction, translation, and creating accessible materials. Also keep in mind how you plan presentations and what you are doing during a presentation. For example, if you want participants to read a slide, do you read the content out loud to accommodate persons with visual impairments? When speaking, do you face the audience so that persons with hearing impairments can see your lips and face as you talk? See How to Make Presentations Accessible to All for more information.

Crisis intervention

  • If a student appears to be in a crisis, ask them to tell you how you can be most helpful. You can refer the student to Counselling Services, offer to call on their behalf, or walk them over in person. If you are concerned about a student and unsure whether or not to intervene, seek appropriate supports on campus.

References 

The information on this page has been adapted from "Universal Design: Places to Start," which was developed by Jay Dolmage, an instructor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, who specializes in disability studies. Jay invites members of the University of Waterloo community who are interested in learning more about accessibility and universal design to contact him. 

Resources

CTE teaching tips

Other resources