By Cecilia Lo, Department of Music and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

To ensure the intellectual richness of research and education in our community, the University of Chicago is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment and providing equal access to students with disabilities. As an educator, you are an important partner in this endeavor to provide reasonable accommodation in the classroom to students with disabilities. Reasonable accommodation in the classroom is a provision of federal and state laws including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, commonly known as Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, commonly known as the ADA.

The goal of reasonable accommodations is to remove physical and instructional barriers to learning so that students with disabilities can compete on the basis of their academic abilities. Students who wish to request an academic modification or adjustment must work with Student Disability Services (SDS) to initiate the disability determination process. After SDS determines a student’s eligibility, it will issue the student an Accommodation Determination Letter, which outlines the precise reasonable accommodations that the University must provide. Such accommodations are designed to offset the substantial limitation imposed by the disability, not to alter essential elements of courses or programs. In order to receive accommodations, the student must submit a copy of the Accommodation Determination Letter to their course instructors with sufficient lead time for the instructors to make the necessary arrangements. The SDS requests that students submit their letters as soon as they register for a class and within the first week of class.

Assisting Students with Disabilities

1. Include a Disability Statement on Your Syllabus

Include a statement on your syllabus asking students to provide you with their Accommodation Determination Letter to ensure that those needs are met in a timely manner. SDS recommends instructors announce the statement during the first week of class. This approach demonstrates that you are sensitive to and concerned about meeting the needs of ALL students. Furthermore, it affords students the opportunity to make their accommodation needs known to faculty early in the quarter.

Sample Syllabus Statement

If you need any special accommodations, please provide your instructor with a copy of your Accommodation Determination Letter (provided to you by the Student Disability Services office) as soon as possible so that you may discuss with him/her how your accommodations may be implemented in this course.

2. Follow the Instructions on the Accommodation Determination Letter

Provide academic accommodations only after you have received a copy of the Accommodation Determination Letter and provide only those that are listed in the letter. If a student requests academic accommodations or provides you with disability documentation, but does not submit an Accommodation Determination Letter, or if a student requests academic accommodations that are not listed in the letter, refer that student to Student Disability Services. Occasionally, students with disabilities who are qualified for special support choose not to seek it; you are not responsible for accommodating a disability that the student does not declare or that you cannot verify.

3. Meet with the Student in Private

You should meet with students requesting accommodation to discuss the best way to implement their accommodations. You and the student must agree on how to best use the accommodation under different circumstances.  For example, how best to deal with in-class exercises for students who require extended examination time.

The outcome of this meeting should be documented in writing and kept for record.

4. Protect Student’s Privacy

Students’ privacy, including information about their disability, is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (see also University of Chicago Policy in the Student Manual). Instructors should never discuss a student’s disability with anyone other than the student and staff involved in providing accommodations. Discuss with the students in your private meeting to determine how to handle certain classroom situations where their disability may be exposed.

5. Provide a Safe and Fair Learning Environment

Students with disabilities have met the same admission standards to be enrolled in courses as have other students in your class. Classroom accommodations provide an opportunity for them to compete on equal terms with other students in class. They should be held to the same academic standards as otherwise qualified students.

Some people may be uncomfortable when near a person with a physical disability.  As the instructor of the course, you have the ethical responsibility to make sure everyone in class is being treated fairly and respectfully during class meetings.

6. Use Student Disability Services as a Resource

Student Disability Services acts as a resource to provide accommodations. Instructors should contact its director, Gregory A. Moorehead, Ed. D. at or 773-702-7776 if they have any questions or concerns or need assistance.

What are the most common forms of accommodation?

In general, the accommodations outlined in the Accommodation Determination Letter are not difficult for the instructors to carry out, nor should they change basic course requirements. Typical accommodations include:

  • Note-taking Assistants - Students with certain disabilities cannot take notes while trying to listen. In this case, the SDS will hire a peer note-taker, typically another student taking the same class, to take notes.
  • Large Print, Copying, or Braille Text - Some students with vision loss require alternative form of the texts used in courses.  The SDS is responsible for converting course text for students who needs them.  Since the conversion process is a time-consuming task, SDS will contact faculty for the syllabus as early as possible.
  • Test-taking Accommodations - Some students may need testing accommodations, such as extended time and a distraction free environment for testing. Some students may need scribes and/or access to laptops as word processors. Others may need to take tests in alternative formats, such as oral exams instead of written exams.

The precise accommodations instructors need to provide for a particular student are outlined in the Accommodation Determination Letter they submit. If you have questions on how to implement any of these accommodations, contact the Student Disability Services (contact information below).

Where can I get more information?

Resources at the University of Chicago

Further Reading

  • Crisca Bierwert “Teaching Students with Disabilities: What Faculty can Do,” University of Michigan CRLT Occasional Paper No. 17 (2002): 8-9. 
  • Patricia Dunn, “Re-Seeing (Dis)Ability: Ten Suggestions,” English Journal 100.2 (2010): 14-26. 
  • For perspectives on disabled people and on disability in the humanities, academy and society see: Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,  eds., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (New York : Modern Language Association of America, 2002), particularly the “Enabling Pedagogy” section and Georgina Kleege’s chapter “Disabled Students Come Out: Questions without Answers,” pp.208-316, which discusses disabled students’ perspective of classroom dynamics.