1. Defining Disability & Working with Students with Disabilities (Instructor Guide to Student Accommodations)

What is disability?

A photo of a large lecture hall full of students, seen from the front with a view of rows of seats rising to the rear of the room.

When you think of people with disabilities, you may call to mind people using hearing aids, service animals, or wheelchairs. However, the vast majority of disabilities are non-apparent, such as learning disabilities, mental illness, chronic health conditions, and neurodivergence (including autism and ADHD). In many instances, you cannot tell if someone is disabled or needs an accommodation just by looking at them.


Did you know… Over 90% of students affiliated with the McBurney Disability Resource Center have non-apparent disabilities.

People with disabilities:

  • have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  • have a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or
  • are perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn). (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990)

Disabilities can be temporary or permanent. Students’ conditions may change during their time in your course. Students have the legal right to disclose or not disclose information about disability status. Requests for accommodations can happen for many reasons, at any time during your course, and are protected by federal and state legal requirements, as well as UW–Madison policies (e.g. UW–Madison Policy 855).

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Did you know…You can access all accommodation requests in the Instructor Portal of McBurney Connect, which shows a summary of all requests in addition to each Student Accommodation Letter.

What am I required to do for students with accommodations?

When students receive formal disability accommodations, you will receive a Student Accommodation Letter (previously titled “Faculty Notification Letter”) from the McBurney Disability Resource Center (you will learn more about this later).

You are obligated to take certain actions or approaches for students who have formal accommodations:

  • Engage in an interactive process by communicating with the students, and at times the McBurney Center, regarding the implementation of their accommodations in the course.
  • Protect the privacy of students’ disclosures. In other words, don’t talk about or call out disabled students in public ways. Always meet or communicate privately with students about their accommodations, and access accommodation information on secure devices.
  • Respond in a timely and effective way. A theme in recent complaints and lawsuits has been when universities take too long to implement accommodations or don’t respond to concerns raised by students. Courts are clear that accommodations should allow students to have an equal chance to learn and demonstrate their skills, the same as classmates who are not using accommodations.
  • Provide accommodations based on the Student Accommodation Letter. Students who have formal accommodations have gone through a detailed process to confirm eligibility, identify barriers, and develop an accommodation plan; it is the instructor’s responsibility to implement accommodations listed in the Student Accommodation Letter in order to lower barriers to learning. The McBurney Center is here to support both with general strategies and in specific situations. You will learn more later about implementing accommodations.

High expectations, low barriers

A common misperception is that accommodations entail the creation of separate, simpler, or easier sets of standards. This is the opposite of what accommodations should do: the rigor and challenge of your subject matter should remain consistent for all learners. Accommodations help lower barriers to taking part in the learning process itself.

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How do I interact with students who are using accommodations?

Photo of students studying and chatting at round tables in the lounge of a high-rise building with windows looking out over Lake Mendota.

If you have not interacted often with disabled students, you may feel nervous about saying or doing something wrong, or giving offense. In addition to treating everyone – disabled or not – with respect and understanding, you can follow some simple principles when interacting with students who have formal accommodations.

  • Approach all requests for help in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. If students are in your class, that means they met academic standards in order to be there. Don’t assume that disability status means that students cannot think, reason, or perform at the same level as their peers. Offer them the same support and encouragement as you would any students.
  • Create an environment where students are comfortable talking with you about their accommodations. On the first day of class (more about this later) and throughout your course, say clearly and explicitly that you are there to support your students, and that you welcome them to speak with you privately about course-related concerns.
  • Ask students who want to talk with you about their accommodations to do so during private times, like office hours or other scheduled time out of class. Provide assurance that you will respect their privacy.

Students with disability-related accommodations often have a greater level of structure and detail around their plans for learning, because accommodations take intentional work to put in place. However, you should not assume that students with accommodations must report to you regularly about their needs and progress in the course. Rather, it is a shared responsibility between your students and you to check in to determine how well their accommodations are working, and what changes, if any, need to be put in place for future course interactions.

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Does everyone need formal accommodation documentation?

You can provide support to any student, regardless of their disability status or accommodation paperwork. You have a lot of latitude in how you teach your course. Regardless of your approach, you should include considerations about accessibility and accommodations in your course design process.

When students approach you to ask for accommodations and do not yet have a Student Accommodation Letter, you can respond in a number of ways.

  • Do not assume disability.  Provide a list of campus resources, of which the McBurney Center could be one.
  • If students are asking for disability-related accommodations, encourage them to start the formal accommodation request process with the McBurney Disability Resource Center. Students can apply online to start the process and meet with a McBurney Center access consultant even if they don’t yet have documentation of a disability.
  • Approach all requests for help in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. If you are able to do something to help students fully participate in your course, you have the freedom to try those techniques. Keep the rigor appropriate for the content and learning outcomes, but lower access barriers however you can.
  • Assume that students requesting accommodations are doing so in order to improve their access to learning in your course. Just approaching you to make the request can take considerable strength on the part of students – trust that they are not trying to game the system or find an easier path.

Instructors get many informal requests for support. As the instructor, you can choose to support students who do not have formal accommodations. We encourage you to contact the McBurney Center to ask for advice and support.

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Review & Apply Activity (5 questions)

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