Since the 1970s support for people with disabilities has grown significantly, as reflected in the United States by three key pieces of legislation: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The support has led to new educational practices, including alternative assessments for students with disabilities, placement in the least restrictive environment, and individual educational plans.
There are several commonly used categories of disabilities. Although all of them risk stereotyping or oversimplifying children, they can also be helpful in gaining a preliminary understanding of their strengths and needs. For the purposes of education, the most frequent category is learning disabilities, which is difficulty with specific aspects of academic work. The high prevalence of learning disabilities makes this category especially ambiguous as a description of particular students. Assistance for students with learning disabilities can be framed in terms of behaviorist reinforcement, metacognitive strategies, or constructivist mentoring.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a problem in sustaining attention and controlling impulses. It can often be controlled with medications, but usually it is also important for teachers to provide a structured environment for the student as well.
Intellectual disabilities (or mental retardation) are general limitations in cognitive functioning as well as in the tasks of daily living. Contemporary experts tend to classify individuals with these disabilities according to the amount and frequency of support they need from others. Teachers can assist these students by giving more time and practice than usual, by including adaptive and functional skills in among the student’s learning goals, and by finding ways to include the student in the daily life of the classroom.
Behavioral disorders are conditions in which students chronically perform highly inappropriate behaviors. Students with these problems present challenges for classroom management, which teachers can meet by identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviors, by teaching interpersonal skills explicitly, and by making sure that punishments or disciplinary actions are fair and have been previously agreed upon.
Physical and sensory disabilities are significant limitations in health, hearing, or vision. The signs both of hearing loss and of vision loss can be subtle, but can sometimes be observed over a period of time. Teaching students with either a hearing loss or a vision loss primarily involves making use of the students’ residual sensory abilities and insuring that the student is included in and supported by the class as well as possible.
Several relevant activities and learning resources can be found at the special education page of teachingedpsych.
In addition, each of the websites below represents an organization focused on one particular type of disability. Each includes free access to archives of non-current journals and other publications, as well as information about conferences, professional training events, and political news relevant to persons with disabilities.
- This is primarily about learning disabilities, but also somewhat about ADHD.
- This website is primarily about ADHD. Note that its website name uses an older terminology for this disability, ADD (no “H”) for attention deficit disorder (with the term hyperactivity).
- This one primarily discusses about hearing loss.
- This website is primarily about visual impairment.
- This one is primarily about intellectual disabilities or mental retardation.
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