Rock Valley College

Strategies for Students with Physical Disabilities

Working With Students Who Have Physical Disabilities

The following are some general tips on how to build rapport and work effectively with students who have a visual, hearing, or mobility impairment, as well as students with seizure or chronic health disorders.

Visual Impairment

1. Mention your name when meeting a person who is visually impaired. He/she will be able to distinguish your voice.
2. Indicate to a person who is blind or has a visual impairment that he/she is being addressed by using his/her name; if necessary, touch him/her on the arm or shoulder.
3. When guiding a person who is visually impaired, it is best to allow him/her to hold on to your arm between your elbow and shoulder. This allows him/her to follow direction and to negotiate turns, steps, curbs, etc.
4. When giving directions or the location of something, indicate “right or left”, “up or down” in relation to the student’s body.
5. If the individual is unfamiliar with a new place, give a tour. Also, warn him/her if furniture or equipment has been rearranged in a familiar place. Keep all aisles clear.
6. If a student relies on a dog guide for mobility, the dog is working. Please do not distract the dog.
7. Facial expressions of individuals who are visually impaired are poor signals of emotion. Better clues are hand and body movements.
8. As the individual how he/she prefers to access print materials.  Try to have all materials in this format whenever possible.  For assistance in converting materials into alternate format (ex., large print, Braille, or audio) contact the DSS office.
9. Try to provide most notes and print materials to the individual in electronic format, as many students who are Blind or visually impaired use assistive technology such as screen readers.  This will allow him/her to more easily access the information.
10. Provide verbal descriptions of any visual aids/visual information, such as charts or diagrams.

Hearing Impairment

1. It is important to have the person’s attention before speaking. Try tapping a shoulder or using some other signal to catch his/her attention.
2. Look at the person when you speak.
3. Speak naturally and clearly. Don’t exaggerate lip movements or volume.
4. Using facial expressions, gestures, and other “body language” is helpful in conveying your message.
5. Do not hesitate to ask the student to repeat the message until communication is complete. It may be necessary to repeat or rephrase your own statements. This process is generally not embarrassing or upsetting for the person. If that doesn’t work, then use a pen and paper. Communication is the goal; the method is less important than clear exchange of messages.
6. If you are talking through the assistance of an interpreter, direct your conversation to the individual with the hearing impairment. This is more courteous and allows the individual the option of viewing both you and the interpreter to more fully follow the flow of conversation.
7. When other people speak outside of the individual’s range of vision, repeat the question or comment and indicate who is speaking (by motioning) so the individual can follow the discussion.
8. Use visual aids and handouts whenever possible to supplement and clarify the information being presented.
9. Try to avoid standing or sitting  in front of a light source (ex., window) as this creates glare and can make communication difficult for some individuals, particularly those who rely on lipreading.
10. Speak at a slightly slower pace if interpreters are used.  This will enable the interpreter to keep up with the flow of conversation and prevent the student from missing information.
11. Many individuals who are hearing impaired prefer to communicate via text messaging or E-mail.  Try to encourage this whenever possible.

Mobility/Orthopedic Impairment

1. Wheelchairs are part of the person’s body space. To push or grab the chair without permission would be considered a violation of that space.
2. Words like “walking” or “running” are appropriate. Sensitivity to these words is not necessary. People who use wheelchairs use the same words.
3. Conversation at different eye level is difficult. If the conversation continues for more than a few minutes and if it is possible to do so, sit down and share eye level.
4. Do not think of someone in a wheelchair as “confined to a wheelchair”; the wheelchair is liberating. Rather use the term “wheelchair user.”
5. Ensure that all meeting spaces are physically accessible.  Adjustable tables/work stations should be used if necessary.
6. Depending on the student's level of mobility or dexterity, adaptive computer equipment, assistive technology, and/or support from staff (ex., to scribe information) may be required.
7. Mentors should be familiar with emergency procedures and understand how the student is to evacuate the building in an emergency.


In the event of any medical emergency on campus, Campus Police should be notified.  These individuals are trained in proper response techniques and can assess the situation and determine the best course of action.  The Epilepsy Foundation of America suggests the following guidelines for responding to a seizure:

1. Remain calm. The seizure is painless to the individual.
2. Do not try to restrain the person. There is nothing you can do to stop a seizure once it has begun. It must run its course.
3. Clear the immediate area so that the individual does not injure himself/herself on hard or sharp objects. Try not to interfere with movements in any way.
4. Do not force anything between the teeth. If the person’s mouth is already open, you might place a soft object like a handkerchief between the side teeth.
5. It isn’t generally necessary to call a doctor unless the attack is followed almost immediately by another major seizure or if the seizure lasts more than about ten minutes.
6. When the seizure is over, let the person rest if necessary.

Source: Adapted from "Assisting College Students with Learning Disabilities: A Tutor’s Manual," Barat College, Lake Forest, Illinois.