Diversity in the Classroom: A Meditation on Accommodating Students with Disabilities

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin preschoolers, Dylan and Escher


As professors, we often reflect about establishing class routines, developing syllabi, getting to know students, designing our online modules well and even, at times, thinking about work life balance. However, accommodating students with disabilities seems to get less reflective airtime than these other topics, at least in my experience as a community college professor. It’s our legal responsibility to provide students with accommodations. It’s also our ethical duty. Given these truths, some may feel that the conversation about accommodating students with disabilities should end here; I feel that we can serve ourselves and our students best by further reflection.

 I’ve learned a lot from working with students with disabilities over the years, and these days I’m excited to get accommodation letters from students and energized by it; it means that I have the honor and privilege of having additional diversity in the classroom, and I get to collaborate with students to make sure their learning experience is optimal. However, I will confess that when I got that first accommodation letter, almost 16 years ago as a part-time instructor, struggling to make ends meet while working a full-time and part-time teaching gig, I felt very anxious about whether I was going to be able to provide reasonable accommodations. The student needed notes in advance of classes, and I was planning classes on the train between jobs. Luckily, the student and I figured it out. He had a note-taker in class and got his notes from me later in the week. The accommodation was reasonable, and the student did exceptionally well. I relaxed a bit. But years of experience with accommodation letters and helping students with disabilities have taught me something about professor attitude toward these letters: it really matters—not just to the student who needs to be accommodated, but to the classroom dynamic and the professor as well. It can be the difference between a safe and welcoming class environment and a student failing, the difference between facilitating meaningful learning and just teaching to the test. It can be the difference between a happy professor and a grumpy one. Given the importance of the issue, I have begun to reflect on some strategies for working with students who have disabilities (and working with all students and their unique needs and identities). The first is to focus on what I have learned and what I can learn. The second is to focus on what support I need.

The first idea I have learned from working with students with disabilities is that universal design in the classroom is important. It’s the same principal at play when a bathroom is designed so that every stall has enough space, not just the stall for handicapped people. One example of a move toward more universal design in my classes is that I no longer have timed tests. Everyone gets as much time as they need to complete the test, and this has decreased anxiety across the board. I realized that how quickly students can recall information was less important to me than their ability to recall information, or to look it up when they needed to. I also no longer write on the board with a vast array of fancy colors thanks to a student with low vision who asked that I write only in black marker on the white board. I write more slowly on the board thanks to another student with low vision. I believe these changes benefit almost all students.

I also learned that it can be very helpful and kind to group students during group work rather than letting them select groups—this can allow for diverse groupings and facilitate connections. Conversely, giving space for students to work independently if they want or need to seems to help create a positive environment for students.

An idea that I learned from having a deaf student and a sign language interpreter in the classroom was how chaotic multiple activities in a given class can be for students. There is nothing like having an interpreter trying to interpret five people in a fish-bowl style conversation in the middle of the classroom while also interpreting my instructions. It made me realize that sometimes there was chaos in my lesson plans. My classroom activities got more structured after this. I learned from another class with an interpreter how to work through my own anxiety about being the possibility of being judged by the interpreter. I dealt with this by journaling after class about the experience. What was my insecurity about? What, if anything, might I shift about my perceptions? How could I make that shift? Getting curious about my feelings helped a great deal, and I wrote my way through the experience. It was very important for me not to project anything negative onto the student or the interpreter, and written reflection helped with this goal.

Whenever there is growth or learning to be had, there is support needed, so I ask myself what support I will need for any task that may feel hard. It’s fine to start with the support one desires. I would like Community College of Philadelphia to have triple the staff members in the Center on Disability, an affinity group for students with disabilities to connect, and more paid professional development to educate teachers about how to work with students who have disabilities. Fortunately, we at CCP seem to be headed in that direction (at least toward some of these goals). However, it is not always the case that the ideal structures are in place for more systemic changes. In this case, it may be helpful to think about the supports that are attainable for us as individuals. We may have to seek out people we trust to talk through challenges, journal, like I did one of the semesters that I had an interpreter, seek therapy, or (if we have the freedom to do so) eliminate that assignment we thought was absolutely essential (and that required 20 hours of grading) to have bandwidth to really be present for all students in the classroom and to be present for our own learning as well.

As with other professions that involve compassionate interaction, it is very important for professors to acknowledge ways to grow and feelings that may emerge along the way. Acknowledging feelings and figuring out needed support opens space for more dialogue and more joy. Focusing one what we can learn from the uniqueness of our students can create more energy as we journey with them.