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Assisting Students with Disabilities

Though many students with documented disabilities receive tutoring through UWEC's Service for Students with Disabilities Office (SSD), some students with learning disabilities will be enrolled in other program areas. Since this group of students is widely served by the ASC, all tutors should read this section. The following information is adapted from "Assisting College Students with Learning Disabilities: A Tutor’s Manual," Barat College, Lake Forest, Illinois.

What is a Learning Disability?

Although it is not visible like a physical impairment, a learning disability is a disability that affects how an individual of average to above average intelligence processes information (takes it in, integrates it, and expresses it). The adult with a learning disability may have language-based and/or perceptual problems that affect reading, spelling, written language, and/or mathematics. For some, organization, time management, and social inter-personal skills also are affected.

Abilities are frequently disparate: a student who is highly verbal with an excellent vocabulary has difficulty spelling elementary-level words; a student who learns very well in lecture cannot complete the reading assignments. These striking contrasts in abilities and learning styles were evident in many famous individuals. For example, Nelson Rockefeller had dyslexia, a severe reading disability, and yet he was able to give very effective political speeches. It is believed that other successful people, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison had learning disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities do not differ from other students in appearance, background, intelligence, or emotional stability.

What Are Some Effects of Learning Disabilities on College Students?

The following are often characteristic problems of college students with learning disabilities. Naturally, no student will have all of these problems.

Study Strategies:
Inability to change from one task to another
No system for organizing notes and other materials
Difficulty scheduling time to complete short- and long-term assignments
Difficulty completing tests and in-class assignments without additional time
Difficulty following directions, particularly written directions

Interpersonal Skills:
Difficulty delaying resolution to a problem
Disorientation in time—miss classes and appointments
Poor self-esteem

Difficulty reading new words, particularly when sound/symbol relationships are inconsistent
Slow reading rate—takes longer to read a test and other in-class assignments
Poor comprehension and retention of material read
Difficulty interpreting charts, graphs, scientific symbols
Difficulty with complex syntax on objective tests

Problems in organization and sequencing of ideas
Poor sentence structure
Incorrect grammar
Frequent and inconsistent spelling errors
Difficulty taking notes
Poor letter formation, capitalization
Inadequate strategies for monitoring written work

Oral Language:
Difficulty concentrating in lectures, especially 2- or 3-hour lectures
Poor vocabulary, difficulty with word retrieval
Problems with grammar

Difficulty with basic math operations
Difficulty with aligning problems, number reversals, confusion of symbols
Poor strategies for monitoring errors
Difficulty with reasoning
Difficulty reading and comprehending word problems
Difficulty with concepts of time and money

How Can a Tutor Learn More about a Student's Specific Learning Disability?

Because a student with a learning disability has a right to confidentiality, you may not be able to read the actual reports of the student’s testing; however, UWEC’s Academic Coordinator of Services for Students with Disabilities should have the information and be able to describe to you the student's specific disability, strengths, areas needing improvement, and possible compensatory strategies. Ask your supervisor to help you arrange a meeting with this person.

What Should a Tutor Consider When Working with Students with Learning Disabilities?

Before determining what to work on, both you and the student must understand the student's specific strengths and areas for improvement. Part of your first few sessions together should be spent discussing the student's learning disability, how it may affect him/her in school, and techniques for compensating for it. This is also the time to build trust. This can be accomplished by:

  • Treating the student as an equal. The student may have a learning disability, but he/she also possesses knowledge and talent that you may not have.
  • Listening to what is important to the student. What areas of learning does he/she want to focus on?
  • Creating an atmosphere that permits the student to confide in you. It is important to find a location where students with learning disabilities can feel comfortable to tackle problems without fear of being embarrassed.

Final determination of what to work on is based on the following factors:

  • The nature and severity of the student's learning disability
  • The student's concerns
  • The course requirements

It is an effective approach to list information under each factor, and use this information to determine priorities for the tutoring program. Some students may just require assistance with papers and readings assigned in their courses. Others also may want to work on supplementary materials. For example, a student planning to take a statistics course may want to review basic algebra concepts and overcome problems understanding fractions. A student with reading comprehension difficulties may want to focus on ways to improve his/her vocabulary.

When working with a student with a learning disability, it is important to ask what he/she would like to work on each session. The student knows where help is needed. For example, the student may need help learning the difference between "affect" and "effect", developing an outline for a research paper, or monitoring an English theme for errors. These items should be dealt with at the beginning of the session. Also remember that frequent review provides necessary reinforcement.

When developing materials and strategies for working with a college student with a learning disability, it is important to consider specific strengths and weaknesses. Each student learns differently. Therefore, suggestions can be taken in any combination from the visual, auditory, time management, and organizational sections that follow.

Auditory Aids

If you are working with any students who could benefit from the following services, the Academic Coordinator of Services for Students with Disabilities may be able to arrange them for students.

Taped Texts. For students who have difficulty with reading the textbook, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and Talking Books are available.

Note takers. If the learning disability interferes with note taking, note takers (voluntary or paid) are often used. A preferable note taker is a student in the class who has a reputation for taking good notes, which can then be photocopied. Instructors of the courses are good sources for help in locating qualified note takers. It is usually a good idea to have two note takers available in case one is absent.

Taped Lectures. A student who is going to tape lectures must have the instructor's permission. A tape recorder with a counter and a pause button is preferable. The counter is set at 0 at the beginning of the lecture. Then when especially difficult, confusing, or important information is discussed, the student can jot down the number on the recorder and review that section of the tape. The pause button can be used for any part of the class, eliminating the need to listen to complete lectures and discussions when the student only needs to review isolated sections. Tapes should be reviewed the same day as the lecture. For each class, the student should have tapes that are dated and labeled. It is also important to take an extra set of batteries to class.

Visual Aids

Outlining. Outlining both required readings and class notes puts information into a form that is visually and logically organized.

Color-coding. Color-coding is another method that can be used to enhance comprehension and memory. For example:

  • When highlighting a textbook or notes, yellow could be used for main ideas, pink for important facts, and blue for definitions.
  • For algebra students who occasionally drop negative signs or exponents, the negative signs could be done in red and the exponents in green.
  • To illustrate how a topic sentence carries a common thread throughout a paragraph, the topic sentence could be colored dark red and the rest of the paragraph a softer red.
  • For students with visual monitoring problems, such as b/d reversals, the student could underline all b's in a rough draft of a theme with green and when typing the final draft, put a green mark on the "b" key of the typewriter.

Graphs, Charts, Diagrams. Making graphs, charts, and diagrams helps explain difficult information. These aids are especially effective in courses with many quantitative concepts, such as economics and statistics.

Time Management

Time management is an area that is often weak for students with learning disabilities. Learning how to schedule time can be one of the most beneficial skills a college student can learn. Because most college work is completed outside of class, new college students need to learn how to develop semester, weekly, and daily calendars to manage their time.

Students with learning disabilities often require additional time to complete assignments and prepare for exams. A semester schedule notes major assignments and tests. It encourages the student to consider when major assignments need to be started. This is critical for a student with a learning disability who needs additional time to memorize information, formulate and organize ideas, complete reading assignments, and monitor for written language or math errors. It will prevent students from "cramming" for tests or staying up all night to work on assignments. To develop a semester schedule, the student should have the course syllabi to record all of the assignments and tests. From these due dates, the student backtracks to set up dates to begin major assignments or to start studying for the tests.

Some students like to record all courses on one schedule; some like to have one for each course to keep in their notebooks; other students like to use both. You should work with students to develop the type of schedule they are most likely to really use.

Weekly schedules are used primarily to help students develop a study schedule. Ideally, students should spend on an average of 3 hours out of class for each hour in class. Some classes will take more time; others will require less. Scheduling study time for each class will make it easier to follow the semester schedule.

Daily schedules keep track of appointments and daily goals. Whenever students make appointments, whether it is to meet with an instructor or to get a haircut, it should be recorded. Some students also write lists to keep track of daily goals. Thus, it is important for students to carry a pocket calendar.


Students need to organize their class notes and handouts. A good way to organize these materials is to buy a three-ring notebook with pockets for handouts. The notebook can be divided into sections that follow the course syllabus. The syllabus and semester schedule are placed in the front of the notebook for easy reference. The notes from the class lecture and required readings are filed in their respective sections. Many students carry a spiral notebook for note taking because of its smaller size and then put the class notes, reading notes, and handouts into the three-ring notebook.

What Is ADD and How Does It Affect College Students?

The fastest growing group of students with disabilities enrolled at UW-Eau Claire is students with Attention Deficit Disorder. Arrangements can be made with your supervisor to tutor students with ADD in a separate area to reduce distractions. The following information, adapted from ADD and the College Student, offers characteristics of possible academic difficulties specific to some students with ADD:

Organization/Time Management: Students with ADD can become so consumed with the complexity of getting everything done that they do nothing.

Reading: Reading problems for students with ADD frequently involve difficulty in persevering with the task over a length of time. Yet, quite often, when tested for reading problems, these students do much better when time constraints are lifted. In addition, students with ADD may not be able to remember what they read because of attention deficits.

Note taking: Note taking may be an impossible task for some students with ADD because two skills are called upon simultaneously, listening and writing. In addition, retaining information, even momentarily, can be very difficult, thus causing frustration, which then increases anxiety and interferes with processing information. Also, students with ADD can be so intent on getting everything down that, in the end, it is difficult to organize or even make sense of the notes taken.

Writing: Writing for students with ADD can be difficult from two perspectives: it requires both sustained attention and organizational skills, which are frequently the areas affected by their disability

Oral communication: Verbal skills can be subject to word choice or word retrieval problems as the language skills for conversation or presentation are compromised by the anxiety associated with an attention deficit disorder.

Foreign languages: Studies in foreign language can also be difficult for some who have language or auditory processing problems.

All students wrestle with academic and emotional struggles in college, but for students with ADD the problems are often more severe and longer lasting. However, with determination and accommodations, students with disabilities succeed at the college level.

What Should a Tutor Consider When Assisting Students with 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 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.

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.

Mobility 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.”


The Epilepsy Foundation of America suggests the following guidelines:

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.

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