Sheryl Burgstahler

Supporting Students with Disabilities: What Every Teaching Assistant Should Know

Burgstahler, S., & Jirikowic, T. (2002, Winter). Supporting students with disabilities: What every teaching assistant should know. The Journal of Graduate Teaching Assistant Development, 9(1), 23-30.

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Tracy Jirikowic, Ph.D. Candidate
University of Washington


As the postsecondary enrollment of students with disabilities increases, teaching assistants (TAs) play an important role in assuring that all students, including those with disabilities, have access to course content and activities. This article reviews legal issues and the roles and responsibilities of TAs when working with students who have disabilities. It also describes typical academic accommodations used by students with various types of disabilities and presents teaching strategies that can improve access to course content and materials for all students.

Supporting Students with Disabilities: What Every Teaching Assistant Should Know

As key instructional personnel and future faculty members, teaching assistants (TAs) can play an important role in assuring that all students, including those with disabilities, have access to course content and activities. This article discusses legal issues, roles and responsibilities of TAs when working with students who have disabilities, common academic accommodations used by students with various types of disabilities, and strategies that assure access to course content and activities as well as facilitate communication with students. Consider the following three scenarios:

  • Shari is a sophomore enrolled in an introductory chemistry course, which is a requirement for her major. Shari has Cerebral Palsy, a condition that makes it difficult for her to coordinate hand and finger movements and requires that she use a wheelchair for mobility. Shari has come to you because she will need assistance in a chemistry lab that you teach as part of an introductory chemistry course.
  • Jason is a freshman in your literature discussion section. Because of his learning disabilities he approaches you mid-quarter and requests extended time on his tests and assignments.
  • Your faculty supervisor has just informed you that a sign language interpreter will be present in your class as an accommodation for a student who is deaf. You have never worked with an interpreter and are worried about how best to convey the technical content of your course.

Several questions regarding these students come to mind:

  1. What accommodations are needed and who decides what is reasonable?
  2. Who arranges the accommodations?
  3. What action is needed if the equipment for an accommodation is not immediately available?
  4. What is my responsibility in ensuring access to coursework?
  5. How can I best communicate with students about their disabilities and accommodations they might need?

As a teaching assistant, you are likely to face similar situations and have similar questions as the number of students with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education has increased nearly threefold in the last two decades (Gajar, 1998). In a 1996 survey, 6% of college undergraduates reported having a disability (Horn & Berktold, 1999). Learning disabilities (29%) were the most frequently reported type of disability among these students, followed by orthopedic (mobility) impairments (23%), other health impairments (21%), hearing impairments (16%), visual impairments (16%), and speech impairments (3%) (Horn & Berktold).

Although the postsecondary enrollment of students with disabilities has grown (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Heath Resource Center, 1999), the postsecondary outcomes of students with disabilities are less positive when compared with students without disabilities. Students with disabilities are more likely to be enrolled in 2-year institutions, less likely to transition successfully to 4-year institutions, and less likely to earn a postsecondary degree or credential than their non-disabled peers (Horn & Berktold, 1999).

In order for students with disabilities to succeed in postsecondary education they must have equal access to course content and activities. Such access is mandated by federal legislation (Milani, 1996). Positive attitudes of instructors and their willingness and ability to provide accommodations have also been positively correlated with the success of students with disabilities in postsecondary institutions (Moore, Newlan, & Nye, 1986). However, many faculty members, administrators, and TAs have limited knowledge and training in disability-related laws and accommodations for students with disabilities (Askamit, Leuenberger, & Morris, 1987; Burgstahler, Duclos, & Turcotte, 2000).

While many faculty members express a willingness to make classroom accommodations and report that they have made teaching adaptations for students with disabilities (Silver, Bourke & Strehorn, 1998; Stodden, James, Chang & Harding, 2000), attitudinal and information barriers to equitable participation still exist (Leyser, Vogel, Wyland & Brulle, 1998; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000). Both faculty and students with disabilities have recognized the need for instructors to have more information about academic accommodations, legal responsibilities, and campus resources that support students with disabilities (Burgstahler, Duclos, & Turcotte, 2000). By understanding disability legislation, becoming familiar with academic accommodations, developing effective teaching strategies, and learning about campus resources, you can prepare yourself to assure equal access to your course content and, ultimately, contribute to improved postsecondary academic and career outcomes for students with disabilities.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) have played a key role in protecting the rights of students with disabilities in postsecondary education. The intent of this civil rights legislation is to assure that individuals with disabilities have opportunities to maximize employment, attain economic self-sufficiency and independence, and be fully integrated into society. Section 504 mandates that programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance do not discriminate on the basis of disability. They must provide reasonable accommodations for these individuals. Because almost all postsecondary institutions, even private schools, receive federal funds of some type, the vast majority of postsecondary institutions are subject to the provisions of Section 504. The Rehabilitation Act has been viewed as the cornerstone of disability rights legislation. When the ADA was enacted in 1990, many provisions of Section 504 were extended to public and private entities that do not receive federal funding. The ADA upholds and extends the standards for compliance set forth in Section 504 to employment practices, communications, and all policies, procedures, and practices that impact the treatment of individuals with disabilities.

A “person with a disability” is defined by federal law as any person who (a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) has record of such an impairment, or © is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

Disabilities that can impact participation in postsecondary coursework include blindness, low vision, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities, and health impairments. Some of these disabilities are easily recognizable. However, many, such as learning disabilities, are not. Participation in lectures, written assignments, field or lab work, exams, class discussions, and computer applications may be impacted by an individual’s disability. A student with a disability may need accommodations in one or more of these areas in order to gain or demonstrate knowledge of the course content.

The ADA accessibility requirements also apply to programs offered on the Internet. The United States Department of Justice has clarified that “Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well” (Patrick, 1996). At the postsecondary level, the content of Web sites and software needed for course activities and assignments must be accessible to students using assistive technology. This is particularly important for blind students who use speech output systems to read the text on a computer screen. For example, if a Web site is not designed with text alternatives for graphic elements, these students are effectively barred from access to the site content, which constitutes discrimination.

The ADA does not require instructors or institutions to change essential course content or academic requirements. Instead, students with documented disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations to facilitate full access to course content and participation in course activities. Reasonable accommodations do not provide an “unfair advantage” over other students. They might include auxiliary aides (e.g., note takers, sign language interpreters, readers, scribes, tape recorders, assistive listening devices), course materials in alternate formats (e.g., Braille, electronic text, large print) or simple modifications in instructional methods or procedures (e.g., visual/verbal demonstrations, preferred seating, extended exam times, flexible attendance requirements). For a student who is blind specific accommodations might include providing a scribe to read questions and write answers dictated by the student, or having the student use a speech output device on a computer to make a test accessible.

In summary, federal legislation requires that postsecondary institutions accept otherwise qualified students with disabilities into their academic programs. They may, however, require that these students provide acceptable documentation of their disabilities. Additionally, they should work with students to identify and implement reasonable accommodations that will grant full access to educational opportunities. With cooperation between faculty members, TAs, campus services, and the students themselves, the most appropriate accommodation strategies can be determined and implemented.

Roles of Support Staff, TAs, Faculty Members, and Students

The student with a disability is the best source of information regarding limitations imposed by the disability and about accommodations that have been effective in the past. An experienced staff member or office, often called disabled student services (DSS), is available on most campuses to assist instructors in understanding the effects of disabilities on accessing course content and/or participating in specific academic activities. The most successful accommodations are delivered when the student, faculty member, TA and disabled student services staff work together. While each campus has its own policies and procedures regarding academic accommodations, the following roles and responsibilities are typical.

The Campus Disabled Student Services Office

Typically, the DSS office is responsible for accepting disability-related documentation and requests for accommodations. DSS staff arrange specific academic accommodations such as interpreters, notetakers, taped textbooks, Brailled documents, and large print text, as well as supervise test taking and coordinate other testing accommodations.

DSS staff are also available to help faculty and TAs work with students who have disabilities. They offer information about different types of disabilities and various disability-related accommodations. They often provide training to faculty and staff about campus services, legal rights and responsibilities, and accommodation strategies. Some disabled student services offices also have developed publications and Web sites with reference material on issues such as accessible Web design. At some institutions, additional technical specialists are available through other campus programs. For example, computing support staff might include someone knowledgeable about adaptive technology for students with disabilities and the library may employ someone with specialized knowledge in accessing information and electronic resources by students with disabilities.

The Student with a Disability

Not all students with disabilities need accommodations and not all students choose to disclose their disability. However, on most campuses students with disabilities must disclose their disabilities, provide documentation, and register with the campus DSS office in order to be eligible for accommodations. The DSS staff, often in collaboration with a student and faculty member, determine appropriate accommodations. Specific accommodations depend upon the nature of the student’s disability, course content, teaching methods and activities. Although students are encouraged to make their requests prior to the beginning of the academic term, they may request accommodations at any time while a course is in session.

Faculty and TAs

Postsecondary faculty and TAs must provide the accommodations to a student with a disability once the DSS office has determined what specific accommodations are reasonable. On most campuses, instructors receive some type of written notification describing appropriate academic adjustments for the student. Information related to the student’s disability is confidential and must not be shared with other students. Questions about specific accommodations should be directed to the disabled student services office.

While the law mandates access to course content and activities, it does not require that essential course requirements or expectations are changed. However, there are steps faculty and TAs can take to make students more comfortable and to facilitate the success of the accommodations. Instructors can invite the students who have disclosed their disabilities to meet to discuss accommodations. It is also helpful to routinely include a statement on the syllabus or make an announcement the first day of class to encourage students with disability-related accommodations to meet to discuss their needs. An example of a statement for a syllabus is, “If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please arrange to meet with me as soon as possible.”

Typical Accommodations

The presence of a disability can impact an individual’s access to and participation in postsecondary course content and activities. The following paragraphs provide examples of common types of disabilities and typical accommodation strategies (DO-IT, 2001).

Learning Disabilities may affect listening, reading, information processing, reasoning, remembering, writing, or mathematical abilities. Individuals with specific learning disabilities generally have average to above average intelligence but may have difficulties acquiring and demonstrating knowledge and understanding. Academic accommodations for students with learning disabilities include:

  • Notetaker and/or audio-taped class sessions
  • Extra time on exams and/or alternative testing arrangements (e.g., a quiet space)
  • Multi-modal instruction and demonstrations (e.g., visual, aural, tactile)
  • Computer with speech output, spellchecker, grammar checker and/or other tools

Mobility Impairments can result from many causes, including amputation, a broken bone, Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord injury, or Cerebral Palsy. Daily activities such as walking, sitting, bending, or using one’s fingers, hands, or arms may be difficult or impossible without the use of assistive devices. Examples of academic accommodations used by individuals with mobility impairments include:

  • Notetaker
  • Lab assistant and/or group lab assignments
  • All instructional activities in accessible locations
  • Adjustable tables and/or equipment and resources located within reach
  • Class assignments made available in electronic format
  • Computer equipped with special input device (e.g., voice input, Morse code, alternative keyboard)
  • Accessible safety devices and procedures (e.g., lengthened pull-chains on safety showers)

Health Impairments may result from a variety of medical problems that can have a chronic or temporary impact on health and daily living. Common conditions that may significantly impact a student’s academic performance include cancer, asthma, kidney failure, or arthritis. Accommodations used by students with health impairments include:

  • Notetaker
  • Flexible attendance requirements
  • Extra exam time
  • Assignments in electronic format
  • Use of email to facilitate communication

Psychiatric Impairments include a range of mild to chronic mental health and psychiatric disorders that can substantially impact the ability to cope with daily life demands. Typical accommodations for students with psychiatric impairments include:

  • Notetaker
  • Flexible attendance requirements
  • Extra exam time
  • Assignments in electronic format
  • Use of email to facilitate communication

Hearing Impairments refer to hearing loss that ranges from mild to profound. Individuals who refer to themselves as deaf often have no functional hearing. Those who are hard of hearing typically have some residual hearing and are able to use it to communicate. Common accommodations used by individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing include:

  • Notetaker
  • Sign language interpreter or real-time captioning
  • FM sound amplification system
  • Captioned videos
  • Use of visual aids during lectures and demonstrations
  • Written directions for assignments and lab instructions
  • Visual warning system for lab emergencies
  • Use of electronic mail for class discussions and instructor interaction

Blindness refers to the disabilities of individuals who have little to no usable vision. Students who are considered blind rather than low vision cannot read printed text, even when enlarged. Individuals who are blind from birth may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts or verbal descriptions based on visual images.

Accommodations for individuals who are blind include:

  • Lecture notes, handouts, and/or textbooks in alternate formats (e.g., audio-tape, Braille, electronic).
  • Verbal descriptions of visual aids
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphical materials
  • Braille lab signs and equipment labels
  • Auditory lab warning signals
  • Adaptive lab equipment (e.g., talking thermometers, calculators, light probes, and tactile timers)
  • Computer with optical character reader, speech output, Braille screen display, and printer output

Low Vision refers to persons who have some usable vision but cannot read standard-size text, have field deficits (e.g., cannot see peripherally or centrally), problems with depth perception, or other visual impairments. Accommodations for individuals with low vision include:

  • Seating near the front of the classroom
  • Large-print handouts, tests, lab signs, and equipment labels
  • Large monitor interfaced with microscope to enlarge images
  • Computer equipment to enlarge screen characters and images

Universal Design of Instruction

Effectively teaching students with a wide variety of abilities, disabilities, and learning styles can be challenging. Inclusive teaching practices involve good pedagogy that benefits all students. One TA described these teaching practices as follows (Burgstahler, Duclos, & Turcotte 2000):

The more ways you present the data, and the more senses are engaged, and the more interaction you encourage the students to have with the material, the better off it’s going to be for everybody including the student with a disability. (p. 18)

When designing classroom instruction, labs, or other learning activities, TAs should strive to create a learning environment that allows all students, including those who have disabilities, to access the content of the course and fully participate in class activities. Such inclusive teaching strategies have been referred to as “universal design of instruction.” Universal design of instruction is defined as:

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact. (Research Connections, 1999, p. 2)

Universal design principles can be applied to labs, classroom discussions, group work, handouts, Web-based instruction, fieldwork, and other academic materials and activities (Burghstahler, 2000). Listed below are examples of general teaching strategies for the classroom, laboratory, examinations, and fieldwork that benefit all students, but are especially useful for students who have disabilities (DO-IT, 2001).


  • Select course materials early so that students and DSS have ample time to translate them to audiotape, Braille, and/or large print.
  • Provide syllabi, short assignment sheets, and reading lists in electronic format.
  • Face the class when speaking.
  • Repeat discussion questions.
  • Provide lecture outlines or write key phrases and concepts on the blackboard or overhead projector.


  • Take the student on a tour of the lab and discuss safety concerns, including special issues related to disability.
  • Assign group lab projects.
  • Arrange lab equipment so that it is accessible and within reach for someone using a wheelchair.
  • Provide verbal and written lab instructions.


  • Assure that exams test the essential skills or knowledge needed for the course.
  • Follow DSS recommendations regarding extra time on examinations; some students will require extra time to transcribe or process test questions.
  • Consider allowing students to turn in exams via electronic mail or diskette.


  • Ask the student how he might be able to do specific aspects of fieldwork. Attempt to include the student in fieldwork opportunities, rather than suggesting non-field work alternatives.
  • Plan ahead to consider special needs when requesting field trip vehicle reservations and ask about the accessibility of the destination ahead of time.

Integrating concepts of universal design into your teaching can reduce the need for academic accommodations or support services for students with disabilities (Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998). These teaching strategies can also benefit others in the class, such as those who speak English as a second language. Some students, however, will always require academic accommodations (e.g., a sign language interpreter for a student who is deaf). Thinking about the wide range of student characteristics as you develop your teaching materials and methods; inviting students to communicate with you about their needs; and working together with the student, faculty member, and disabled student services office are ways to contribute to a more inclusive academic environment for everyone.

Each student and course or program presents unique access challenges and potential solutions. Think about your own solutions to the problems described in the vignettes and the questions posed at the beginning of this article. Then read the potential solutions below.

  1. Shari needed lab accommodations in an introductory chemistry course. She arranged a meeting with her TA and instructor before the quarter started. She toured the lab and was able to make sure that the environment was wheelchair accessible and found a preferred location to sit so she that could easily observe demonstrations. They also agreed that when Shari could not carry out the physical aspects of the experiment due to her mobility impairment, she would record the data on her laptop computer while observing her lab partner.
  2. Jason requested exam accommodations for a literature course in the middle of the semester. When Jason’s TA asked him if he had documentation for his request, Jason stated that his learning disabilities had only recently started interfering with his course of study, and therefore he had not yet submitted documentation to the institution. Jason’s TA referred him to the campus DSS office and a short course on test taking strategies repeatedly offered by the school. Although Jason did not present his documentation early enough to receive an accommodation on the test for which he requested it, by the end of the quarter the TA received approval from DSS to give him extra time on the final exam.
  3. Eric’s faculty supervisor informed him that a student who is deaf needed a sign language interpreter in his course. Eric contacted the DSS office to get tips for communicating with students who have hearing impairments and discussed his concerns regarding the technical details of his engineering class. DSS staff suggested that Eric send his notes to all students electronically a few days before his class. Arrangements were also made to find interpreters with knowledge of technical terms.


The federal government has made it clear that postsecondary institutions must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that otherwise qualified students with disabilities have access to educational opportunities. With advances in technology, state and federal mandates, and improved awareness about disabilities, students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities are now able to fully participate in postsecondary educational programs. They are part of the student body in every institution of higher learning. Equal access to courses and programs for students with disabilities is essential for students with disabilities to succeed not only in college, but also in careers. It is important that faculty members and teaching assistants understand their roles and responsibilities when working with students who have disabilities, apply inclusive teaching strategies, and learn about resources on campus that can contribute to creating a level playing field for all students. Ultimately, their efforts will contribute to positive postsecondary education and career outcomes for people with disabilities. Additional resources tailored to the needs of postsecondary educators working with students who have disabilities can be found in The Faculty Room at


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. P. L. 101-336.

Askamit, D., Leuenberger, J., & Morris, M. (1987). Preparation of student services personnel and faculty for serving learning-disabled college students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28, 53-59.

Blackorby, J. & Wagner, M. (1996). Longitudinal post-school outcomes of youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study, Exceptional Children, 62, (5), 399-413.

Burgstahler, S. (2000). Universal design of instruction. [Brochure] Seattle, WA: DO-IT University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S., Duclos, R., & Turcotte, M. (2000) Preliminary findings: Faculty, teaching assistant, and student perception regarding accommodating students with disabilities in postsecondary education environments. Unpublished raw data. University of Washington.

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology). (2001). Working together: Faculty and students with disabilities (3rd ed.) [Brochure] Seattle, WA: University of Washington.

Gajar, A. (1998). Postsecondary education. In F. Rusch & J. Chadsey (Eds.), Beyond high school: transition from school to work. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Heath Resource Center (1999). College freshman with disabilities: A biennial statistical profile. Washington DC; American Council on Education.

Horn, L., & Berktold, J. (1999). Students with disabilities in postsecondary education: A profile of preparation, participation and outcomes. National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education, Washington D. C.

Lewis, L., & Green, E. (1999). An institutional perspective on students with disabilities in postsecondary education. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education available at

Leyser, Y., Vogel, S., Wyland, S., & Brulle, A. (1998). Faculty attitudes and practices regarding students with disabilities: Two decades after implementation of Section 504. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 13(2), 5-19.

Milani, A. A. (1996). Disabled students in higher education: Administrative and judicial enforcement of disability law. Journal of College and University Law, 22(4), 989-1043.

Moore, C. J., Newlan, B. J., & Nye, N. (1986). Faculty awareness of the needs of physically disabled students in the college classroom. AHSSPPE, 4, 137-145.

Patrick, D.L. (correspondence to Senator Tom Harkin, September 9, 1996). Retrieved March 16, 2002, from

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, P. L. 193-112. Section 504

Silver, P., Bourke, A., & Strehorn, K. C. (1998). Universal instructional design in higher education: An approach for inclusion. Equity & Excellence in Education, 31(2), 47-51.

Stodden, R. A., James, R., Chang, C., Harding, T. (2000). National survey of educational support provision to students with disabilities in postsecondary education. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii at Manoa. National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports.

Stodden, R. A., & Dowrick, P. W. (2000). The present and future of adults with disabilities in postsecondary education. Impact, 13(1), 4-5.

Universal design: Ensuring access to the general education curriculum. (Fall, 1999), Research Connections in Special Education, 5, 1-3.


The content of this article was developed with support from the U. S. Department of Education (Grant # P33A990042). However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Federal government, and readers should not assume their endorsement.

Return to Sheryl’s home page

Sheryl Burgstahler