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Invisible Disabilities

Teaching Students with Invisible Disabilities

Developed by Patricia Carlton and Jennifer Hertzfeld


Invisible disabilities are the most common type of disability among college students.   For example, students with learning disabilities, Attention Hyperactivity Disorder and/or psychiatric disabilities may request accommodations even though they do not appear to have a disability.  There are numerous other hidden or invisible disabilities such as heart conditions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Seizure Disorders.

There may be several students in your classroom with invisible disabilities.  Of these students, only some will request accommodations.  For those students who request accommodations, it is important to express your willingness to accommodate all types of disabilities and to be supportive of their accommodation requests.  You will receive verification that a student has a disability via the “Accommodations Request” letter sent by the Disability Services (DS).


Learning Disabilities



Students with learning disabilities often learn differently than their peers.  Although these student typically have average or above average intelligence, there is frequently a discrepancy between their ability and their achievement in specific areas. A learning disability is a permanent disorder that interferes with integrating, acquiring, and/or demonstrating verbal or nonverbal abilities and skills.  Frequently, there are processing or memory deficits in evidence.

Each student with a learning disability may need different types of accommodations, services, and/or support based on what area(s) of learning is(are) affected by the disability.  Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties with some of the following: 

Teaching Students with Invisible Disabilities 

  • Abstract reasoning
  • Auditory processing
  • Auditory reasoning
  • Mathematics
  • Oral expression
  • Processing speed
  • Reading comprehension
  • Visual processing
  • Visual spatial Skills
  • Written expression


Keep in mind that one individual does not generally have difficulty with all of the above-mentioned areas and it is not unusual for a person with a learning disability to be gifted in some areas. 


Exam Accommodations:
Assist these students in arranging for appropriate exam accommodations by coordinating with the student and DS.  The student will ask you to fill out and sign a “Request for Testing” form.

Multi-modal Instruction:
Provide important information and assignments in both oral and written formats to help promote accessibility to course content. A multi-modal approach to instruction assists these students in finding a modality that is consistent with their learning strength.

Alternative Format:
Coordinate with DS to ensure that course materials will be available in alternative format.  Some of these students need print material in alternative format (e.g., audiotape or electronic format). When you are contacted by DS, it is important that you provide information immediately about the required textbook(s), handouts, overheads, and additional reading expectations.  It takes DS a considerable amount of time to convert materials into alternative format.

Study Aids:

Provide study questions, study guides, and opportunities for Q&A to help students review essential course content.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)



Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV TR, 2000).  Students with ADHD may have difficulty with one or more of the following areas:

  • Completing tasks
  • Concentration
  • Distractibility
  • Following directions
  • Listening
  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Sedentary tasks like reading
  • Sitting for lengthy periods
  • Transitioning

Some students with ADHD take medication for their condition.  This medication may be a stimulant, which actually calms them and helps them focus on tasks.  Anti-depressants may also be used.  


Assistance with Structure: Provide a syllabus with clearly delineated expectations and due dates.  Study guides, review sheets, and frequent opportunities for feedback are helpful in providing structure and organization.

Exam Accommodations: Assist students in arranging for appropriate exam accommodations with DS.  Many students with ADHD use exam accommodations including extended time and a distraction-reduced exam space. 

Access to Class Notes:  Some of these students have difficulty focusing and concentrating and for this reason may need access to classroom notes.  DS may ask you to help identify a classmate to take notes for these students.

Classroom Distractions: If a student appears extremely distracted, it may be appropriate to encourage the student to sit near the front of the class, away from doors, air conditioning units, windows, or any other possible sources of distraction.  

Psychiatric Disability


Students with psychiatric disabilities exhibit “... a persistent psychological disorder or psychiatric disorder, emotional or mental illness that adversely affects educational performance and/or functioning and frequently requires medication”  (http://disserv3.stu.umn.edu/AG-S/3-5.html, 1999). 

In most situations you will not be aware that you have a student with a psychiatric disability in your classroom. Many of these students are fearful of and have faced stigmatization because of their disability. Some do not need or request any accommodations and some require a variety of accommodations. For some the disability is temporary, for others it is chronic.


Exam Accommodations: Assist these students in arranging for exam accommodations when requested. The exam accommodations that they will most likely use are a distraction reduced exam space and extra time.

Make-up Work: Collaborate with students about arrangements to makeup tests and other assignments, allowing them extra time since these students may miss class during serious psychiatric episodes.