Serving Adult Students with Disabilities in the ESOL Classroom

Stephanie Wilker

Learning a second language (or seventh, like some of our students) is undeniably a challenging task. Can you imagine having to learn another language without being able to hear your teacher’s voice, see your textbook, or even find a seat in the classroom that you can easily access? Adult ESL students with physical disabilities in “mainstream” schools/programs often encounter a lack of resources that can effectively meet their educational needs.

Before I write any more, I need to make a confession. I don’t feel like I should be writing this article. Who am I to think that I can inform others about this topic when I barely know anything about it myself? I won’t lie–I changed the name of the article three times after spending more time than I’d like to admit perusing the internet for the most acceptable terminology to use for discussing disabilities. I was a little embarrassed that I had to do a google search; but I’m glad that I did, because I learned some things that I can share with others and put to use in my own teaching. What I should be embarrassed about is that I didn’t seek this information sooner! Here are some of the main take-away points from my quick research:

  •  “Disability” and “handicap” have different meanings.
  • “Disabled” is generally preferred over such terms as “differently abled” and “handicapped.”
  • Use people-first language, i.e., “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people,” or “the man who is deaf” instead of “the deaf man.” This emphasizes that people are not defined by their disabilities.
  • Similarly, do not lump all people with the same type of disability into one category beginning with the word “the” (like “the blind” or “the deaf”).

I found the three following webpages to be particularly helpful in my quest for inoffensive terminology. Considering that two of them were written by people with disabilities and the other one belongs to a university, I’m assuming they’re pretty reliable sources. (Yes, assuming…)




Diversity Services is a great resource at your university. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wilker

Diversity Services is a great resource at your university. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wilker

Now that my cover has been blown, let’s get back to talking about adult English language learners with physical limitations. If you are a teacher, it’s extremely likely that you’ll encounter a student with a disability sooner or later, if you have not yet. According to the United Nations, about 10% of the world’s population has a disability. If you are working with refugee students, the percentage will be even higher, because developing countries have much larger proportions of persons with disabilities. Also, there is always the chance that people from war-torn areas have suffered a debilitating injury before coming to the U.S, leaving them deaf, blind, or otherwise physically limited. For more facts from the U.N. about disabilities, please see

My own experiences teaching students with disabilities have been few–four to be exact (that I know of). I have had the pleasure of teaching a student who was blind, one who was deaf, one who was partially deaf, and another who walked with a cane. These experiences varied greatly, and they were also unexpected, which meant that I was unprepared and unsure of how to best serve each student. No one else really seemed to know either, so I just looked up my own resources and tried to think about how I could help those students succeed in the classroom. Sometimes I look back and am frustrated that I didn’t do more for those students, but I think I did the best I could have at the time. Over time, I’ll gain more experience and knowledge, and will be able to handle similar situations better in the future. Being a teacher is an ongoing learning experience. Here are some things I have learned so far from mine:

  • For students who are blind, speak slowly and clearly, which you should be doing for your ESL students anyway! Include the student as much as possible in listening and speaking activities to be sure that he/she understands the material.
  • For students who are deaf, it is especially imperative that you speak slowly and clearly. This helps the student read your lips more easily. Also, if there are American Sign Language interpreters present, this will help them follow what you’re saying without too much confusion or skipping over anything important.
  • This is an obvious one, but sometimes gets overlooked. TALK TO THE STUDENT (about what you can do to help)! He or she is probably the best judge of what accommodations are helpful or necessary.
  • See what resources/accommodations are available through your school or organization. Many schools have a special office to serve students with disabilities. Possible accommodations include large-print materials, recording devices (maybe even ones that can transcribe text), and extra time to take tests.
  • Include disability-friendly language in your syllabus to help make all students feel welcome in your class.
  • Treat the student as you would any other student during class. If you do not spend time focusing on the student’s disability, hopefully your other students will be respectful and follow your example. Also, do not treat the student like a child!

This article only covers a small amount of information, but doesn’t go into much detail. If you are working with people with disabilities, you’ll need to do more of your own research based on your students’ specific needs. Here are some links to get you started:

❏     Tip Sheet from Mobility International USA:

❏     Ideas from UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program:

❏     Swearer Center: (This links you to blind resources, but you can scroll up to find the center’s deaf resources.)

American Foundation for the Blind:

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One Response to Serving Adult Students with Disabilities in the ESOL Classroom

  1. tesolcompass says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks, Stephanie!

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