Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

1. Learn about your students

Yale is changing. Our student body is increasingly diverse, made up of individuals who enter our classrooms with a broad variety of cultural and educational backgrounds and abilities. Appreciation of this diversity may prompt instructors to ask, “Does my approach to teaching create an environment conducive to all of my students’ learning? Might I be unconsciously privileging some students while making it more difficult for others to learn?” This includes students with disabilities, who comprise a significant and growing population in Yale College and the graduate and professional schools.

Students with disabilities

  • In a recent survey, 19.4% of U.S. undergraduates reported having one or more of the following conditions: blindness or visual impairment that cannot be corrected by wearing glasses; hearing impairment (e.g., deaf or hard of hearing); orthopedic or mobility impairment; speech or language impairment; learning, mental, emotional, or psychiatric condition (e.g., serious learning disability, depression, ADD, or ADHD); or other health impairment or problem (Snyder, de Brey & Dillow 2019).
  • In private four-year colleges, approximately 11% of undergraduates register a disability with their school.  
  • The most commonly registered disabilities in U.S. private four-year colleges are represented below. The top three are what might be called “invisible” disabilities, and many students have more than one disability.

  • Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, reflect differences in how people learn rather than their capacity to learn. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of young adults with learning disabilities enrolled in post-secondary education increased by 18%. 
  • Fewer than half of the students who received support for a disability during their K-12 schooling go on to register with their college’s disability services office. While people tend not to outgrow disabilities, there are many other reasons–most significantly, fear of discrimination–behind students’ decision not to register when they go to college.

Accessibility and inclusive education

Disability is best understood as a disconnect between people and their environment. While all human beings exhibit a range of capability, disability occurs when social conditions that were restrictively designed for some people pose significant constraints or barriers for others. A restrictive “medical model” of disability locates the problem in impaired individuals who fall outside of the norm. A more holistic “social model” of disability identifies limitations in the normalizing and exclusionary ways we construct our environments.

Changing an unaccommodating environment is easier and more just than trying to change individuals who don’t conform to an unexamined norm. Since we know that only a fraction of students with a disability will request a formal accommodation (typically as a last resort), instructors should try to identify and remove disabling obstacles to students’ learning before being asked for a special accommodation (Meyer and Rose 2005). 

The goals of an accessible and inclusive learning experience are simple: each student should have an equal opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge. In an equitable learning environment, access should be no more challenging for one student than it is for any other: the doorway should be equally wide regardless of who is entering.

Inclusivity and accessibility underlie the principles of Universal Design for Learning, which aim for a learning environment in which each individual student can thrive without the need for special accommodations. Rather than creating separate, “special” learning tracks to support students outside of the norm, Universal Design for Learning promotes a single, shared learning environment with sufficient flexibility to accommodate a full range of students’ capability, pre-existing knowledge, and personal investment or interest (Yuvall, Procter, Korabik & Palmer 2004; Zaloudek 2014).

Getting to know our students

It can be very difficult to anticipate every obstacle a student may encounter when trying to access learning activities and resources. Inviting students into a dialogue about accessibility is an effective way to begin building an inclusive learning environment. Signaling an openness to learning from students, and a willingness to design accessible activities with their suggestions in mind, are effective ways to establish a trusting and supportive rapport.

Students report that the simple inclusion of an accessibility statement in a syllabus (see the Tip below) sends a powerful message of an instructor’s commitment to inclusion. The goal of an inclusive accessibility statement is to encourage conversation and cooperation between instructors and students, rather than hand students off to the Student Accessibility Services office to request formal accommodations.

Instructors may choose to begin each course with a confidential questionnaire, asking students to share information privately with their instructor about students’ motivation, preparation, and anticipated challenges regarding the course. Concluding the questionnaire with an open-ended question like “Is there anything else you’d like me to know about you and your ideal learning environment?” can invite students to share ways of learning that have been beneficial in the past, without needing to disclose a disability.

For students who are reluctant to self-disclose a disability, provision of anonymous venues for feedback to instructors can be an effective strategy to encourage dialogue. Instructors might consider explicitly asking students to use the Canvas Anonymous Feedback tool to share suggestions for improving the accessibility of a course. It is generally better to ask students to describe accommodations they may anticipate needing, including use of assistive technologies, than to ask them to identify specific disabilities or impairments.

One of the most important things an instructor can do to promote student engagement and learning is to communicate a desire to create an inclusive learning environment in which every student feels understood, respected, and acknowledged. 


Meyer, A. and Rose, D. (2005). The Future is in the Margins: The Role of Technology and Disability in Educational Reform. In David H. Rose, Anne Meyer, and Chuck Hitchcock (eds.), The Universally Designed Classroom: Accessible Curriculum and Digital Technologies. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Synder, T., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S.A. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics 2017 (NCES 2018-070). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C. Chapter Three.

Yuval, L., Procter, E., Korabik, K., & Palmer, J. (2004). Evaluation report on the universal instructional design project at the University of Guelph. Ontario, Canada: University of Guelph. https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/resources/uid-summaryfinalrep.pdf

Zaloudek, J. A. (2014). Radical Accommodation: Design for Extreme Access to Education. Future of Education International Conference: Florence, Italy. https://conference.pixel-online.net/FOE/files/foe/ed0004/FP/0857-SET544-FP-FOE4.pdf