Information on Specific Disabilities

Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder

  • Definition: Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder is a neurological condition that affects both learning and behavior. AD/HD is the result of a chronic disturbance in the areas of the brain that regulate attention, impulse control, and the executive functions which control cognitive tasks, motor activity, and social interactions. Hyperactivity may or may not be present. The diagnosis of ADD is always a medical one, and must rule out causation from other mental disorders. The most effective management of ADD often includes a combination of drug therapy (e.g., Ritalin) and cognitive behavioral therapy (self-instruction, relaxation).
  • The table below illustrates some of the characteristics of students with ADHD:
Primary Secondary Academically related conditions Problem solving skills

Attention deficits (distractibility; inconsistency in focus) Impulsivity Overactivity

Low frustration tolerance Sleep problems

Personality disorders

Disorganization in time and place

Poor self esteem

Moodiness and depression

Specific learning problems

Poor time management skills

Difficulty in being prepared for class and keeping appointments, getting to class on time

Reading comprehension difficulties

Difficulty with math problems requiring changes in action, operation, and order

Inability to listen selectively during lectures, resulting in problems with note taking

Lack of organization in work, especially written work and essay questions

Limited elaboration skills, both speaking and writing problems

Learning foreign languages

Ability to "hyper focus" for intense periods of time

Ability to tolerate chaos and rapidly rearrange ideas and environments

Excellent skills for developing multiple approaches to tasks

Learning Disabilities

  • Definition: "Learning Disability" is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders which are manifested by significant difficulties in language acquisition and use in two or more of the following areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span.

    Problems with organizational and management skills, social perceptions, and interpersonal interactions may exist with learning disabilities, but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability.
  • Characteristics: Learning disabilities are exhibited in varying degrees of severity across one or more academic areas. They are mainly observed as processing disorders which means there is a difficulty in receiving or expressing language either orally, in written form, or through body language. The following table illustrates some learning disabilities and their manifestations.
Reading Written Language Math Receptive and Expressive Oral Language

Inadequate word attack skills

Confusion of similar words

Difficulties with phonetic skills

Slow reading rate and/or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with level of difficulty

Problems understanding what is read

Difficulty identifying main ideas and details

Difficulty integrating new vocabulary

Poor penmanship

Slow written production

Difficulty with sentence structure or poor grammar

Difficulty copying from a blackboard or book

Difficulty with learning rules of grammar

Compositions lacking in organization and development of ideas

Frequent spelling errors

Poor proofreading and revising skills

Incomplete mastery of basic facts

Difficulty recalling sequence of math operations and processes

Misunderstanding of math vocabulary

Confusion or reversal of numbers and operational symbols

Difficulty reading or understanding word problems

Inaccurate copying of problems

Problems with time, money and measurement

Difficulty expressing ideas or thoughts aloud

Problems describing events or stories in proper order

Mispronunciation of words

Difficulty remembering specific words

Poor ability to remember or understand spoken instructions

Inability to concentrate and pay attention in class

Medical and Temporary Disabilities

  • Definition: Any chronic illness is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act when it substantially impairs or restricts one or more of the major life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, working, or learning. Chronic illnesses may include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and cardiac disease, to name a few.
  • Characteristics:
    • Fluctuations in academic performance
    • Variable emotional states
    • Inconsistent energy levels
    • Physical limitations
    • Sporadic class attendance

Students may sometimes encounter temporary disabilities which may substantially limit their ability to perform. Examples of such disabilities include broken wrists, arms, backs, etc. Students may be able to receive accommodations temporarily if they provide documentation of the disability and the documentation lists functional limitations and impact on learning.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities include visual, hearing and mobility impairments as well as speech impairments and Acquired Brain Injury. It can also include chronic medical illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, diabetes and cancer.

Visual Disabilities

Visual Impairment

  • Definition: Persons who have visual impairments have a best corrected visual acuity of 20/70 or less in their better eye, or may experience difficulty with optic muscle control.
  • Characteristics: Limited ability to visually absorb their environment; field of vision or muscle convergence may be affected; possible color blindness;
    migraine headaches and/or debilitating fatigue after lengthy periods of reading.

Legal Blindness

  • Definition: Persons who are legally blind have a corrected vision in the better eye of 20/200 or less, or a field of vision that is restricted to 5 degrees or less at 20 feet.
  • Characteristics: May not "appear" to have a visual disability, but will need accommodations in order to read printed materials and/or function within a new environment.


  • Definition: Persons who are blind experience a complete lack of vision, though they may have some perception of light and colors. They often depend on other senses, such as hearing and touch, to gather information.
  • Characteristics: Individuals who are blind do not always have the experience of sight from their past to assist in the recollection of data, so it is not appropriate to assume that someone who is blind is familiar with objects in the class room or a new environment. They may use canes and/or seeing-eye dogs in order to navigate their environment.

Auditory Disabilities

Hearing Loss

  • Definition: A person may have various degrees (mild, moderate, severe) of hearing loss which are documented by an audiologist.
  • Characteristics: A person with hearing loss may need to sit in the front of the class in order to hear the lecture, but the impairment may not affect the ability of the student to communicate effectively. He or she may need to be able to see the instructor's face in order to read his/her lips. Also, the student may request that the faculty member wear an FM system which amplifies the instructor's voice directly into the hearing aid of the student.


  • Definition: A person who is deaf has a profound hearing loss which cannot be significantly amplified with assistive listening devices.
  • Characteristics: A person who is deaf will need to sit in the front of the classroom with the instructor's face and mouth in plain view. The individual may read lips and thus relies on facial expression to understand what is said. Or, he or she may use a sign language interpreter.

Mobility Impairments

  • Definition: A person with a mobility impairment has a physical condition which limits his or her ability to navigate the environment.
  • Characteristics: A person with a mobility impairment may use a wheelchair, assistive walking device, or other prosthesis in order to navigate and manage the environment. The individual may need a special desk or table in lieu of the traditional classroom desk.

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

  • Definition: ABI is an acquired impairment of medically verifiable brain functioning resulting in a loss or partial loss of one or more of the following: cognitive, communication, psychomotor, psychological, and sensory/perceptual abilities. Injury can result from two types of trauma: 1) external events, such as closed head trauma or missile penetrating the brain; or, 2) internal events, such as strokes, tumors, ingestion of toxic substances, hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain), or infections of the brain. Evaluations must be ongoing, since recovery from brain injury usually continues for many months, even years.
  • Characteristics: There is great variation in the possible effects of a brain injury and most individuals will exhibit some, but not all of them. However, most injuries result in impairment in the following functions: memory deficits; inability to store information for immediate recall; great distractibility; difficulty with attention and concentration; need for increased time to process information; impeded reaction time, speed of response, and quickness of data integration; difficulty with comprehension of written or spoken material; tendency to interrupt, talk out of turn, dominate discussions, speak too loudly or rudely, or stand too close to the listener; difficulties with spatial reasoning--may have difficulty navigating the campus without getting lost; reduced ability to categorize, sequence, prioritize, abstract, and generalize information; difficulty with goal setting and planning; inflexibility; resistance to accepting assistance; increased need to take frequent breaks to rest.

Psychological Disabilities

  • Definition: Psychological disabilities include schizophrenia, severe depression, anxiety and/or panic disorders, bipolar disorders, phobias, and personality disorders. These disabilities are cyclical in nature and symptoms often become more apparent as the academic term progresses. Many of these disabilities require medication for control of the symptoms which may intensify some of the characteristics listed below. Students have reported that changes caused by medication may be as difficult to deal with as the symptoms of the disability.
  • Characteristics:
    • Excessive procrastination
    • Drowsiness or falling asleep in class
    • Sporadic class attendance
    • Slurred speech
    • Difficulty concentrating, distractibility
    • Listlessness, lack of energy
    • Social detachment
    • Poor preparation or inconsistent work habits

Laws and Disabilities

In Title V, Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112) a disabled person is anyone with a physical or mental disability that substantially impairs restricts one or more of such major life activities as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, working, or learning. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) upholds and extends the standards for compliance with Section 504. This comprehensive civil rights act provides protection for individuals with disabilities. As defined by the ADA, a disabled person is someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment,
  • Has a record of such impairment,
  • And/or is regarded as having such an impairment.

In addition to readily discernible disabilities, such as persons who are blind, deaf, or use a wheelchair, the definition includes people with invisible disabilities. These include psychological disorders, learning disabilities, and chronic illnesses.

Under ADA, all institutions of higher education (either public or private) must comply with government policies, procedures, and employment practices that impact the treatment of students. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, institutions must make appropriate and reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities to ensure accessibility to academic activities (courses and examinations) and nonacademic activities (admissions, admission to programs, academic adjustments, housing, financial assistance, physical education, athletics, and counseling).

In order to be granted protection under Section 504 and ADA, students must self-identify to the university or college, provide current and comprehensive documentation concerning the nature and extent of the disability, and articulate their needs to the disability service provider on campus.

Disability Resources