Supporting Students With Disabilities in Academic Environments

Teaching Students With Disabilities

There’s no greater reward for educators than successfully providing an exceptional educational experience to each student in the classroom. You likely enjoy nothing better than seeing a struggling student overcome their learning difficulties and start thriving in and out of school, especially when it’s a special needs learner.

Teaching learners with disabilities can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Each learning disability is unique, and even the same disability can be expressed quite differently depending on a student. So, it’s critical to find the best strategies that’ll work best for your special education students.

There are currently over 7 million learners with disabilities in the US alone. Still, even if there were just one, it would be essential to provide them with the necessary support and a proper educational environment that could help them grow and develop.

So, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common learning disabilities that teachers could encounter and see what you can do to provide exceptional educational experiences to every student, regardless of their physical and/or mental condition.

Student Disabilities in an Academic Environment

Unfortunately, only a few schools and educators adopt a proactive approach to accommodating their students with disabilities. They rely on traditional teaching methods and strategies that don’t consider students with special needs. And only once they’re notified of such a student joining their school do they adopt half-measures that are set to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), not with the student’s unique needs.

However, if you want to ensure that all your learners receive proper education and support, you need to adopt a proactive approach. It’s essential to create an accommodating academic environment where any student could thrive, whether they have a disability or not.

After all, in many cases, you won’t even know if a student has a disability – they can choose whether they want to disclose that information. Moreover, they even might not know, since many learning disabilities are too often misidentified as lazy, disorganized, or hyperactive. Over a third of US educators, for example, say that what others call a learning disability is just laziness. While this could be true at times, the opposite is usually the case.

Disabilities that can impact academic success

Various types of conditions and traumas can impact a student’s academic experience and success. Temporary disabilities like a fracture can affect their performance, and so can relapsing-remitting disabilities like MS or seizures and long-term disabilities like paraplegia. But in academic environments, the most disrupting disabilities are typically learning ones that can impact:

  • Reading skills;
  • Writing skills;
  • Math skills;
  • Oral language skills;
  • Study skills;
  • Social skills.

And as mentioned, although two or more learners could have the same disability, they could express it and be affected by it in different ways. So, it’s crucial that educators are aware of their students’ special needs and try to accommodate them as much as possible, making them feel that they’re equal to their non-disabled schoolmates.

Some of the most common disabilities you might encounter in the classroom include the following:


About 8.4% of school-age children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). It affects academic success by making it nearly impossible for students to keep their focus in class or stay in place. Students with ADHD often make careless mistakes, have trouble staying organized or following instructions, are easily distracted and seem forgetful at times, and they’re always fidgeting.

Although each student with ADHD will have different symptoms, the condition can be broadly divided into three categories or types:

  • Inattentive type:
    • Difficulty staying focused, easily distracted, messy, misses deadlines frequently, poor listening skills;
  • Hyperactive/impulsive type:
    • Constant fidgeting, overly talkative, impatient, interruptive, dislikes quiet leisure activities;
  • Combination:
    • Symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive types;

There isn’t a specific test that’s used to diagnose learners with ADHD. Therapists and doctors typically collect information from parents, teachers, and schoolmates and run a medical evaluation to rule out other possible causes before offering a diagnosis.

It’s critical for educators to know that ADHD doesn’t mean that a student is unable to understand instructions or that they have intellectual impairments.


Of all the language-based learning disabilities that affect up to 20% of the population, dyslexia is the most common. Dyslexia affects a student’s reading, writing, and spelling skills, so it can have an immense impact on their academic success as it can make traditional textbooks challenging to learn from.

Some of the most common signs that your student has dyslexia include:

  • Reading and writing exceptionally slowly;
  • Poor spelling;
  • Writing letters backward (“b” instead of “d,” for example);
  • Understanding verbal information, but difficulties with written information.

Learning disabilities that are somewhat similar to dyslexia and affect specific skills critical for academic success include:

  • Dyscalculia:
    • It affects the ability to understand numbers and learn math;
  • Dysgraphia:
    • It affects fine motor skills and writing (but reading is largely unaffected).

Dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia don’t impact your student’s behavior, mental capacities, or intellect. They affect particular skills that can make general education more challenging.


Aphasia (or dysphasia) is a specific language learning disability that affects language and communication. It affects approximately one million Americans and can have a severe impact on a learner’s academic success.

Aphasia can be broken down into three unique categories:

  • Expressive aphasia:
    • The student can understand verbal information, but they cannot express their thoughts easily;
  • Receptive aphasia:
    • The student’s comprehension skills are affected – they might use nonsensical words or grammar, have difficulty connecting words with objects, and have trouble understanding spoken language;
  • Global aphasia:
    • All language skills are affected (severity differs between students).

Unfortunately, language-based learning disabilities like aphasia often make it seem like a person’s intelligence is affected, but this isn’t the case. Learners with aphasia often think in the same way as non-disabled students do; they simply experience more difficulty expressing themselves and communicating clearly.

Aphasia can have several causes, but most commonly, it develops after a stroke, tumor, or head trauma.

Auditory and visual processing disorders

Of course, visual and auditory processing disorders significantly impact a student’s performance if the education environment doesn’t accommodate them.

Auditory processing disorders don’t necessarily mean that a student has complete deafness. They could be unable to notice the subtle differences between sounds, for example, which could impact their comprehension, reading, and writing.

It’s the same with visual processing disorders – your learner could have complete blindness. Still, they could also have difficulties distinguishing between similar shapes, meaning they could accidentally skip words and lines of text, reverse letters, and even have problems with hand-eye coordination.

Nonverbal learning disability

A nonverbal learning disability (NLD) doesn’t directly impact a student’s academic performance, but it can certainly cause problems if educators don’t accommodate it. Learners with NLD have difficulties understanding nonverbal communication. They can and do talk and communicate, but they don’t understand others’ body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions.

If a classmate tells a joke or uses sarcasm, a student with NLD would take it seriously. If a teacher said something serious or even sad but had a smile on their face, a student with NLD might start laughing.

NLD is a social disability, and as such, it doesn’t directly impact academic success. It does, however, impact relationships and interpersonal skills, which could lead to poorer academic performance.

ADHD, Dyslexia, Aphasia, Auditory and Visual processing disorders, and NLD are just some of the common learning disabilities that could affect your student’s performance. There are many more, and it’s critical to understand them and do everything in your power to support the students who have them.

Are disabilities always evident?

Disabilities are very rarely obvious, so many teachers and educators often dismiss them. While many make sure to accommodate students in a wheelchair, they rarely try to accommodate students with “invisible” disabilities. As mentioned, ADHD is often seen as laziness or defiance, NLD is frequently seen as just strange, dyslexia is seen as a student simply not trying hard enough.

So, even if your learners look fine and don’t display obvious signs and symptoms of learning disabilities, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have them or that they’re not struggling.

Strategies for Working With Learners With Disabilities

To make sure that you accommodate all special needs learners and make your classroom more accessible and welcoming to everyone, you can adopt several different strategies. Even non-disabled students will appreciate them, so check them out:

  • Use Universal Design for Learning:
    • Be flexible, offer information in more than one format (text, video, and audio, for example), offer freedom of expression (e.g., allowing students to take either an oral or written exam).
  • Collaborate with other teachers and staff members:
    • The entire school has to be understanding of a student’s needs; it’s not enough for a single teacher to support their learners with disabilities.
  • Keep organized:
    • Send curriculums, assignments, coursework, homework, and more ahead of time; keep your classroom free of distractions; provide room for students who need to take a break (such as students with ADHD).
  • Keep your instructions as simple as possible:
    • Break down complex concepts into chunks of information that are easier to digest, use shorter sentences, and include visuals.
  • Set the tone:
    • Teach your students about different types of disabilities and common misconceptions about them. Show your class how to be helpful and supportive to each of their classmates, whether they have a disability or not.
  • Establish a positive culture:
    • Encourage students to respect and appreciate one another. Instead of punishing “laziness” or “hyperactivity,” talk with your students and see how you can help them.

Each learner is unique, disability or not. To help them feel comfortable, you need to ensure that each student has the tools and support they need to set themselves on a path to success.

Support Resources for Educators

Working with learners with disabilities can feel overwhelming for teachers who haven’t yet had the relevant experience. Fortunately, there are plenty of useful resources that can help you collaborate with your students more effectively:

  1. The University of Washington – the site has plenty of resources covering a vast array of topics, from helping accommodate students with disabilities to successfully teaching remotely and mastering how to engage your students;
  2. ASCD – ASCD is an antiracist organization that aims to help improve educational environments and make them more accessible, diverse, and understanding;
  3. US Department of Education – a government site that contains all the relevant information about how to teach and support students with disabilities;
  4. TeacherVision – established in 1999, TeacherVision shares valuable resources for K12 teachers and educators. You’ll find helpful advice that’ll help you adopt better teaching methods suitable for all students;
  5. OECD – an international organization for economic co-operation and development that helps build better, more inclusive policies across different spheres. You’ll find resources for various topics, including investment, agriculture, public governance, and of course – education;
  6. Exceptional Child – the site provides professional development tools that help educators master special education and find ways to help each student succeed;
  7. National Inclusion Project – this organization develops innovative teaching strategies and provides training, tools, and support for educators who want to create inclusive environments for their learners;
  8. DisabilityScoop – a news site that covers recent events and important updates on everything that’s relevant for individuals with disabilities;
  9. – this organization aims to help students with disabilities in postsecondary education;
  10. Edutopia – a foundation with a mission to transform K12 education and make it more accessible and inclusive for all students with disabilities;

Additional Resources for Special Education Teachers

Take a look at a few other resources that could prove to be valuable in your classroom:

  1. Psychology Today – the largest mental health online magazine. It doesn’t specialize exclusively in learners with disabilities, but it does contain an abundance of helpful information that could be relevant to you and your students.
  2. CDC – CDC’s website shares relevant, scientifically-backed information and facts about disabilities, diseases, and more.
  3. Reading Rockets – the site shares valuable information and research-based educational strategies for parents, teachers, administrators, librarians, and anyone else who could be involved in a child’s education.


Working with students with disabilities can offer unique challenges, but it’s one of the most rewarding experiences for any teacher. Special needs students are wonderful to work with; they just need a bit more attention and understanding.

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