11 Strategies to Support Students with Disabilities

This article is based on the upcoming Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed in College course soon to be released on Atomic Learning by Dr. Theresa Kiley, a former Associate Professor at Argosy University and Western Illinois University, published author, and education conference keynote speaker.  (More about Dr. Kiley.)

Working with students with disabilities can be rewarding, yet challenging. In many situations, a student’s disability is not easily observed. To add to the difficulty, there are a variety of disabilities that college professors can often encounter. Regardless, preparing to teach students with disabilities and diverse characteristics is essential for faculty as instructors must provide academic and career opportunities that are equivalent to those provided for their nondisabled peers.

To help, here are eleven strategies to help faculty members support students with disabilities:


As the number of individuals being diagnosed with ADD/ADHD continues to rise, the need for instructors who can plan a course that is more accessible for all students is also increasing. We invite you to consider these suggestions developed by Universal Design:

  1. Provide important information in both oral and written formats.
  2. Provide printed materials early in the course to allow students time to read the texts and reference any available software.
  3. Avoid last-minute assignment or additional assignments after distributing the course syllabus.

Memory Loss

Memory problems associated with learning disabilities can interfere with storage of new information, as well as the ability to retrieve that information at a later time. In order to assist students with memory issues, here are a few suggested strategies:

  1. Allow students to access memory devices, such as lists of background information (e.g., formulas or dates) to be used in problem solving or essay writing.
  2. Have students create realistic timelines when studying for tests. Test dates should be listed on a large wall calendar, and specific dates and times reserved for studying should be clearly visible. 

Executive Functioning

A few characteristics of students who struggle with executive functioning would be poor time management and planning skills. They may also struggle with paying attention and staying focused. Here are a few strategies to help overcome these barriers:

  1. Help students develop effective schedules that allow them to monitor task completion. Avoiding procrastination is key.
  2. Encourage students to think ahead before they begin projects. That way they have time to evaluate their own plans and revise them as necessary.

Additional Strategies for a Variety of Disabilities

  1. When giving a lecture-
    It is important to point out that many students with learning disabilities are not very good at multitasking, which makes listening to lectures very difficult for them.  Try simple things, such as pausing after making relevant points, clearly indicating transitions to new topics, or making lecture outlines/notes available in advance.
  2. When giving a quiz or exam-
    Quizzes and exams can be challenging for students with learning disabilities, as many experience a high level of anxiety that further complicates their ability to be successful.  Extending the time for completing a quiz or exam is the most common accommodation for students with learning disabilities.
  3. When assigning projects or presentations-
    Provide students with a rubric that clearly communicates information on what will be assessed rather than saying things like “provide quality work” or “a comprehensive review of the topic is expected.” You may also want to consider assigning students with learning disabilities a later date when scheduling presentations so they have more time to prepare.
  4. When you expect class participation-
    Some students with learning disabilities may have problems with expressive language and be hesitant to participate in a class discussion.  Try sharing questions ahead of time, either in class or on a course web site before class so students can prepare appropriate responses.

The number of college students requesting accommodations is growing dramatically.  With this comes a critical need for faculty in higher education to become more knowledgeable, and more willing, to make necessary changes in their courses and in their instruction.

This article is just a small portion of the great advice Dr. Theresa Kiley has to share. To view additional strategies, recommendations, resources, and more, be on the look out for the upcoming course Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed in College course on Atomic Learning.


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