A Handbook for Working With Students With Disabilities

for Student Service Staff

A publication of the UWM Student Accessibility Center
where disability does not mean inability

This handbook is designed to provide first-contact student service staff with basic skills to use when working with students with disabilities.

Prepared by Kate Steinbach, Graduate Practicum


The mission of the Student Accessibility Center (SAC) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is to create an accessible university community for students with disabilities which fosters the development of each student’s full potential.  As a campus resource, SAC staff work with students, faculty, and staff to promote an increased awareness of the abilities of all students and to ensure that they are regarded on the basis of ability, not disability.

Any UW-Milwaukee student with a disability which restricts one or more of life’s major activities may benefit from SAC services.  While people with mobility, sensory, communication, mental, or learning differences affiliate with SAC, so too do people with basic health impairments including temporary injuries.  Students are eligible for services through SAC if they are enrolled in the university and can provide documentation of their disability.

To ensure equal opportunity for participation, the university works to ensure both physical and programmatic access.  This means more than removing architectural barriers and providing interpreters and readers.  It also means making logical adjustments in the instructional process that are necessary and feasible to ensure full educational opportunity yet not altering the basic nature of the course content.

As a first-contact staff member, you may be approached for assistance from students with any or a combination of disabilities.  Some disabilities may be visually obvious to you.  Others will not. It will be helpful to all students if we, as a campus community, look at ways to make our offices and services universally accessible.  This does not necessarily mean drastic changes in how we do business or provide service, but an awareness that all students may not experience college in the same way we did.  It is the goal of this publication to assist the campus community to become comfortable when working with our increasingly diverse student population and to assist them in reaching their goals of success while on campus.

If a student meeting with you discloses that they have a disability, encourage them to contact SAC as soon as possible to learn what accommodations may be available. The following tips are provided to ease what at times can feel awkward.  Relax. Ask the student what you can do to help make the communication smoother.  And remember, the student with a disability is a student and disability does not mean inability.


  • Remember that an individual with a disability is like anyone else, except for the special limitations of the disability.
  • When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter who may be present.
  • Be yourself when you meet an individual with a disability and talk about the same things as you would with anyone else.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands.  People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands.  (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  • Do not assume that a person with a disability needs your help. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted.  Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  • Don’t be over-protective or over-solicitous, and don’t offer pity or charity.
  • Be patient.  Let the individual set his/her own pace in walking or talking.
  • Treat adults as adults.  Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others present.  (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.)
  • Listen attentively when you are talking with a person who has difficulty speaking.  Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or a shake of the head.  Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so.  Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the skills or deficiencies of an individual with a disability.
  • Don’t assume that an individual with a disability has other limitations.  For example, don’t raise your voice when speaking with a visually impaired person.
  • Often, the most difficult aspect of living with a disability is the negative attitudes of others.  It is important to be aware of this situation when working with a student with a disability.
  • Relax.  Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as “See you later,” or “Did you hear about this,” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.
Visual Impairments:
  • When meeting a person with a visual impairment, always identify yourself and others who may be with you.  When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  • When giving directions to buildings on campus, be conscious of accessible routes.
  • Keep walkways clear of obstructions and overhangs, even temporary ones; you never know when someone with a visual impairment will visit.  A space is not accessible if a person has to ask to have an obstruction moved.
  • Do not make the assumption that a map or note can be read.  Ask the student if enlarging the print size would be helpful.  If yes, simply use a photocopier to make an enlargement. Try a 25% enlargement and adjust as needed.
Mobility Impairments:
  • Keep walkways clear of obstructions and overhangs, even temporary ones; you never know when someone with a mobility impairment will visit. A space is not accessible if a person has to ask to have an obstruction moved.
  • Be familiar with where the elevators are in your building.
  • Be familiar with where the accessible entrances are to your building. 
  • When giving directions for traveling around campus, provide an accessible route.
  • When speaking with a person in a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Leaning or hanging on a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person and is generally considered annoying.  The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
  •  Don’t separate an individual with a disability from his/her wheelchair or crutches unless she/he asks you to do so.  She/he may want them within reach.
Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
  • Speak directly to the hard of hearing person -- never behind the back or over the shoulder.
  • If there is bright light, have it on your face and not in the hard of hearing person’s eyes.  The hard of hearing student may need to watch your lips.
  • Be patient.  Assist the hard of hearing student to feel relaxed in talking with you.  Try not to show annoyance if the student is slow to understand and you must repeat.
  • Don’t shout!  Shouting distorts the pattern and rhythm of speech and is tiring to you.
  • Don’t cover your mouth with your hand or speak with a cigarette between your lips.  Both blocks sound and prevent the hard of hearing student form having a clear view of your lip movements.
  • For optimal communication, stand 3-6 feet from the hard of hearing student when addressing him/her.  Don’t lean into the student’s ear.  This can embarrass the student and also make it difficult for the student to have a clear view of your lips.
  • Many words and sounds look the same on the lips.  Don’t repeat a single word over and over if the student does not understand.  Use another word or phrase to express the same thought.
  • Speak as clearly and accurately as possible.
  • Let your face show expression related to what you are speaking about.
  • Get the person’s attention before you speak.  Don’t hesitate to tap the shoulder of the hard of hearing person or wave your hand.  Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish the person can read your lips.  Not all people with a hearing impairment can lip read.  For those who do read lips, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking. 
  •  Expect that some words will not be understood.  Only about 1/4 of the English language can clearly be seen on the lips.  Hard of hearing individuals use what they see on the lips, what they hear with the ear, and the context of what is being spoken about in order to make sense of it all.
  • Talk at a moderate rate. 
  • Pronounce names with special care, especially in introductions.
  • Change to a new subject at a slow rate so that the hard of hearing student is aware of it.
  • When a hard of hearing person joins the group, it helps to inform the hearing impaired student of the topic being discussed.  This will provide the student with a contextual point of reference and aid the student in following and participating in the group discussion.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing individuals run the gamut of intelligence just like hearing persons.  Don’t treat hard of hearing students as if they are unable to understand, or ignore them because speaking with them requires a special attentiveness.  Your interest and patience will enhance their educational experience.
  • If the hard of hearing student appears to be struggling to understand your message, offer to write the information out for them.  Ask if they would prefer this.  Written communication can be a helpful addition to spoken communication.
  • If the student is deaf and does not have a sign interpreter, providing response in written format may be your only way to communicate at the time.  Print your message so that it can be easily read.  Provide time for the student to write a response or additional question(s).
If the student is using a sign language interpreter. . .
  • Address the student, not the interpreter.  The interpreter is acting as a conduit for sharing information.  Don’t say, “Tell him that…” Do say, “Tom, the appointment is…”
  • Keep a moderate rate.  The interpreter will let you know if you are speaking too quickly and need to slow down.
  • Stay visible to the student.  They may be lip reading while using an interpreter.
  • Position the interpreter so they can hear you clearly and be seen by the student.
  • It is okay to address the interpreter directly with a question/concern regarding them personally.  For example, “Can you hear me okay from that seat?”
Hiring an Interpreter . . .

If you are in need of hiring an interpreter for a student who is going to be attending an event you are sponsoring, coming for an advising appointment, or taking a campus tour, etc. contact Amy Hogle-Hunter in the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Office within SAC at 229-2344 or hogle@uwm.edu .   If an on-campus interpreter is available, Amy will schedule the interpreter with a fee-for-service agreement.  Generally, an on-campus interpreter is less costly than hiring from an outside agency because SAC does not charge for travel time nor does it use a two-hour minimum contract.  If on-campus interpreters are all committed to classroom assignments, Amy will refer you to an outside agency for assistance.  When possible, it is helpful if you contact Amy at least 2 to 3 weeks in advance of the date the interpreter is needed.  Although advanced notice is preferred, Amy may be able to accommodate your last minute request should one arise. 


Deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired people use Relay Systems to call, and be called by, voice telephone users.  A Communications Assistant (CA) at the relay center, using specially designed telecommunications equipment, voices to the hearing person what the Text Telephone (TTY) user types and types to the TTY user what the hearing person says.

To place a relay call:   
Dial 7-1-1 to reach the relay.

Give the CA the number you wish to call. 

The CA will dial that number and start relaying when someone answers.

Talk directly to the person you called, NOT the CA.

If you are speaking, remember the CA must type your words so speak at a moderate pace.

Use “GA” (Go Ahead) when you are ready for the other person’s response.
Relay calls can be made 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Calls through the relay system are strictly confidential.

CA's relay conversations verbatim (word-for-word) without any editing.  Either party may, however, request interpretation.  The CA would then actually interpret between ASL (American Sign Language) and English. 


A TTY, also known as a TT or TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf), is a small device with a typewriter keyboard.  Users type their words (to another TTY or to the relay), the words appear on the TTY/TDD display screen.  A personal computer with a modem can also be used as a TTY/TDD.  (See Appendix B)

TTY/TDD on campus?

There are three pay phones equipped with TTY/TDD machines on campus.  They are located in the lobby of the Library, the Engineering and Applied Science building and Enderis Hall.

The following campus departments are equipped to receive calls using TTY/TDD:

Exceptional Education/Interpreter Training
D/HH Program
229-4820 or 3871
Staff Interpreting Office
Student Accessibility Center


When advertising an event, include language in your literature that indicates that the material can be requested in an accessible format.  This does not mean you must have alternative formats available, but will make them available should they be requested.   Also, it is helpful to include wording indicating that accommodations will be made with reasonable notice.  (See Appendix C )


Procedures for an emergency evacuation are available on the Environmental Health, Safety & Risk Management web page at www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/EMERGENCY/evacada.html


Equal Access to Educational Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (A model resource manual); produced by the Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance and Policy Students; University of Wisconsin System Administration; 1994.

Information Accessibility: Ensuring Equal Access to Educational Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (A Guidebook for UWM Faculty, Staff and Administrators)
; prepared by Project IMPACT, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1999.

Perspectives on Deafness; developed and disseminated by the National Center on Deafness, California State University, Northridge.

last modified January 12, 2005