Definitions and General Approaches
Tutors often worry about what problems and difficulties disabled people will present and may well underestimate the student's abilities. Yet the reality is that most disabled students can manage well provided a little forethought and understanding is given to one's teaching. Tutors and trainers do not need to be highly trained disability experts in order to achieve positive results. They need only take a common sense approach and know where to go for additional help if necessary.
The disabled person is usually the best person to start with when one is trying to establish what their needs are and what possible solutions exist or might be created. After all, a disabled student who has achieved the entry standard for Higher Education has the experience of living with their disability and overcoming their problems, they will also know what enables them to learn effectively. The important starting point is not the individual's impairment (or its cause), but what that person needs in order to be able to show and develop their skills to the same extent as others.
Another important point to remember is that people with similar impairments do not necessarily have similar needs. One student with a visual impairment might work well within a lab situation, whilst another might find that situation particularly difficult. Two students with mobility problems could also have very different needs - one might use a wheelchair, another crutches. The specific details of the impairment, personality, age, preferences, experience, motivation and length of time with the disability all have a significant impact on performance.
Language and Disability
Disabled people are quite naturally sensitive to the negative connotations of some expressions. Some non-disabled individuals may inappropriately regard this concern for language as political correctness, however, language conveys powerful messages and can lead to inaccurate labelling that dehumanises or belittles. It is helpful to observe care in one's choice of words and to encourage all students to be sensitive to their use of language too. The list below is dynamic and changes in response to the suggestions and beliefs of disabled individuals:
Use the following terms:
- disabled people
- non disabled people
- partially sighted
- people with visual impairments
- deaf/hard of hearing
- Deaf people who use sign language
- mental health difficulties
- wheelchair users
- Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD)
Do not use the following terms:
- handicapped people
- 'the impaired', 'the visually impaired' or 'the physially impaired'
- any word ending in "...ic" which replaces the identify of the invidual(s) e.g. "the epileptic" or 'dyslexics'
- ESN (Educationally Subnormal)
- EBD (Emotionally and Behaviourally Disturbed)
- wheelchair bound
- a victim of...
- suffering from...
- the special needs child/student
- Avoid attaching labels to people with or without impairments. Do not make assumptions about the presence or absence of impairment, some people have hidden disabilities such as epilepsy or asthma. Medical labels are undesirable and misleading as no two people are alike. Medical labels say nothing about the individual and tend to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people as patients, powerless and wholly dependent on the medical profession.
- It is dehumanising to talk of people in terms of a condition. Do not talk about a dyslexic or an epileptic - it is far preferable to say she/he has dyslexia / she/he has epilepsy.
- Do not use the word disabled as a noun (the disabled), it implies a homogenous group separate from the rest of society. Everyone is an individual, people with disabilities do not constitute a group apart.
- Treat adults in a manner befitting adults, do not patronise disabled learners.
- Do offer assistance to a disabled person, as appropriate, but wait until your offer has been accepted before you help. Do not assume that you know the best way of helping, listen to any instructions.
- Do not be embarrassed about using common expressions such as I see what you mean which may relate to a person's impairment.
- Make eye contact and talk directly to the disabled person rather than through a companion.
- Make appropriate physical contact with disabled people according to the situation in the same way you would with anyone else.