Non-apparent disabilities & the inclusive classroom

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Summary: You can create a more inclusive online and face-to-face classroom by gaining an understanding of barriers students experience in your classroom.

You may think you don’t need to be concerned about accessibility because you don’t have any students with disabilities in your class (at least none that you know of).  But accessibility matters in every single course, as you won’t know every single disability students in your classroom may have. 

Disabilities may not be apparent

You may be familiar with the terms “hidden” or “invisible” disabilities, but the Disability Resource Center (DRC) discourages using these terms. Many identities--including disability--may not be apparent.

Students with many types of disabilities can experience the same barriers in the classroom. Barriers can also vary significantly from student to student, even when they share the same disability. 

For these reasons, it can be more helpful to understand categories of classroom barriers (and modifications that can be made to address them) than it is to know about the disability itself.

Students may not disclose their disabilities 

Students in your courses may not always disclose their disabilities to you. A student may not disclose because they:

  • may not yet be aware that they have a disability,
  • may have developed other strategies to navigate their learning,
  • may be unaware of the DRC and the student’s role in seeking accommodations,
  • may have experienced stigma in disclosing or using accommodations, or 
  • may be concerned that others will think they’re getting a special advantage.

Additionally, many students have multiple disabilities, which is another reason why it is more effective to focus on the barriers (and modifications) rather than on the disabilities themselves. The DRC discourages grouping students by disability.

To create an inclusive classroom, understand the typical barriers to access

As an instructor, you will not always know the identities of the students in your course, but there are lots of things you can do to help ensure your classroom is inclusive for all of your students. An inclusive classroom is one that provides access, promotes inclusion, and minimizes barriers for all students.

  • As a first step, learn the six core skills and use them in all your course materials. 
  • Next, familiarize yourself with the types of barriers students may encounter in your classroom. Barriers are obstacles that arise in the classroom or other environments that limit access or participation for certain people. 
  • Then, once you understand the major categories of barriers, you’ll be able to modify your materials and activities.

Plan for accessibility and inclusion from the beginning, at the point you’re developing or modifying a new course or new activity, rather than as an afterthought to your course development. This way, you’ll create a more inclusive atmosphere that meets more students’ needs that views and acknowledges students’ gifts rather than what may be perceived as limitations. 

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