Disability Awareness

In most ways students with disabilities are just like other students. They have the same needs and desires. They need to be challenged, to be part of a group, to be accepted, and to succeed. Most students with disabilities wish to be treated as individuals and do not wish to be singled out or stereotyped because of their disabilities. The following general considerations may assist students with disabilities and help to ensure that they have equitable access to educational opportunities.

  • Few disabilities affect all areas of functioning. Most students find only a narrow range of activity affected by their particular disability.
  • Many persons find themselves feeling awkward, fearful, or self-conscious when interacting with persons with disabilities. Remember that simple common sense, courtesy, caring and experience will reduce these initial reactions.
  • Avoid actions that call attention to disabilities. An example would be: insisting that a student with a spinal cord injury sit “up front” where attention is drawn to the disability, or discussing the disability in front of the class.
  • It is important to make a statement at the beginning of each term that invites students to discuss accommodations with you individually. Offer students the opportunity to meet with you after class to discuss their needs privately. Include this invitation on your course syllabus.
  • Misconceptions and/or lack of knowledge concerning persons with disabilities occur frequently throughout society. Remember that the term “disabled” is not synonymous with cognitive impairment.
  • Remember that some students with disabilities will avoid the process of identification and/or accommodation to avoid being “labeled.”

Language plays a key role in creating and maintaining attitudinal barriers that are harmful to persons with disabilities. There are specific words used to describe individuals with disabilities (cripple, moron, Mongoloid, junkie, victim, etc.) that have extremely negative connotations and are very stigmatizing. Such language has a devaluing or dehumanizing effect because it focuses on the disability rather than the person with a disability.

The following is a list of unacceptable and preferred language to use when referring to persons with disabilities.

Unacceptable Term Preferred Term
The disabled Person with a disability
Mongoloid Person with Down’s syndrome
Blind, deaf, retard Person with a visual impairment, hearing disability

Person with an Intellectual Disability

Patient, case Client, individual, consumer
Confined to a wheelchair

Wheelchair Bound

Wheelchair victim

Person who uses a wheelchair
Deaf and dumb, deaf-mute Person with a hearing and/or speech impairment
CP, spastic Person with Cerebral Palsy
Epileptic fit Person with a Seizure Disorder

In general, try to mention the person first, and then, if necessary, the disability. Think about your language and how it impacts the person to whom you are referring. Does it suggest a victim or an object of sympathy? Does it focus on a person’s disability? If either is true, you need to revise your language choice. (Disabling Myths, Altman, et. Al.)We may hold attitudes that distort our relations with people who have disabilities. Such attitudes often derive from fears, guilt, or inexperience in working with individuals who have disabilities. These forms of prejudice, distortions and fears can be devastating to the person with a disability. These perceptions reduce our expectations of an individual’s performance. Negative perceptions may also lead to the isolation and segregation of people with disabilities. Such actions can hurt a person’s pride and damage their confidence. In fact, these incorrect attitudes may be more disabling than any other condition.Stereotyping is prevalent throughout society. Its presence on college campuses is not surprising. While stereotypes of all kinds can be destructive, stereotypes within the college environment may undermine the scholastic performance of the student. In addition, such misconceptions may reinforce negative attitudes the student is working hard to overcome. Because of the detrimental role stereotyping can play in the experience of a disabled student, we must become more aware of such misconceptions and work to eliminate them from the system.Three stereotypes or myths are common regarding people with disabilities:

  • The Myth of the Helpless Invalid which assumes that the person with a disability is unable to do anything without assistance.
  • The Myth of the Heroic Cripple which places the person with a disability on a pedestal, making it difficult for him or her to assimilate and function.
  • The “Spread” Phenomenon which generalizes from a single disability and assumes there are also intellectual, social, and additional physical deficits. An example would be shouting at a person with a visual impairment.