Classroom Strategies for Engaging Students with Physical Disabilities: A Case Study

By Carolyn H. Rester
East Texas Baptist University


Cole Franklin
East Texas Baptist University


Communication educators who have students with physical disabilities in their classes are faced with the challenge of accommodating and actively engaging these students, while at the same time avoiding overaccommodation and maintaining the academic quality of their courses. In this case study we examined how student engagement theory could be used as a basis for making decisions about appropriate accommodations to meet the needs of a student with multiple physical disabilities. In this report we describe our decision-making process, and we explain innovative changes that we made to course requirements, learning activities, class discussions, and assignments. We also describe the responses of our students to these modifications, considering the outcomes for the classes as a whole as well as for the student with disabilities. The goal of this research was to provide communication educators with practical pedagological strategies for engaging students with physical disabilities.

Michael1 is a 24-year-old communication major who transferred from a community college to a private liberal arts university to complete his upper level courses. He wants to become a motivational speaker or a spokesperson for a major organization. He is intelligent, articulate, and highly motivated. Michael is also affected by cerebral palsy.2

Ferris (2009) observed that an “increasing number of disabled students . . . are showing up in our classrooms—their number has at least tripled over the last twenty years” (p. 1). As communication educators, we want our courses to create a challenging learning environment for all of our students and to meet their educational needs. We also want to support and encourage students as they pursue their career aspirations and prepare for the workplace. However, as we began to interact with Michael, we discovered that we also had disabilities, that is, impairments in our thinking about how to teach our students. Many of the instructional methods that we were accustomed to using were simply not feasible for Michael; they often left him watching from the sidelines. Having Michael in our classes challenged us to reexamine how we thought about our students, how we approached the teaching/learning process, and how we could accommodate students with various (dis)abilities in university-level communication courses.

In seeking solutions to these concerns, we found little guidance in previous research. Since studies on specific pedagological accommodations for students with physical disabilities are almost nonexistent in the communication literature, we began to develop our own approaches. In this article we explain the strategies that we found useful as we worked through the process of modifying our teaching practices for this student. We also discuss the responses of other students in our classes to those modifications.

Communication and Disability

Much of the previous research on disability was focused on the need for better communication between individuals with disabilities and those who are considered to be “able-bodied.” The number of people with disabilities is growing larger every day. Braithwaite and Braithwaite (2003) argued that the disabled community is its own subculture, and just as one may need to make adaptations when communicating with someone of another ethnicity, age group, or religious affiliation, individuals should work to adapt their communication to people within the disabled culture. Communication between persons with disabilities and those without disabilities is often stressful and awkward (Braithwaite, 1991; Braithwaite & Eckstein, 2003). Hart and Williams (1995) noted that many people “are simply uncomfortable interacting with a person with a disability” (p. 140). In some cases, they completely avoid communicating with those who have disabilities for fear that they will say or do the wrong thing (Braithwaite & Braithwaite, 2003; Thompson, 1983).

Teachers also experience anxiety when working with students who have disabilities (Everhart, 2009). They tend to be less immediate, due not only to a lack of comfort in working with disabled students, but also, in some cases, to the false perception that physically challenged students are less intelligent or harder to manage in class (Asch, 1984; Gerber & Semmel, 1984; Gersten,Walker, & Darch, 1988). Instructors may also respond differently to students with disabilities in out-of class communication. Frymier and Wanzer (2003) examined disparities in the ways that students with and without disabilities perceived conversational interactions with professors. They found that in comparison with other students, students with disabilities are more likely to believe that their teachers misunderstand them. They also see themselves as having less similar attitudes to their professors. In this study disabled and non-disabled students also differed in their views of what accommodations instructors should make in the classroom to account for individual student differences.

Hart and Williams (1995) argued that instructors who have students with disabilities in their classes tend to assume one of four primary roles, which these researchers labeled as the Avoider, the Guardian, the Rejecter, and the Nurturer. The Avoider role is one adopted by an instructor who feels a great deal of discomfort in relating to students who are physically challenged. As a result the instructor does what he or she can to minimize contact. The Avoider may increase his or her physical distance from disabled students and/or ignore these students altogether. The instructor who takes on the Guardian role attempts to protect students with disabilities by removing them from class activities or “helping” them to do the activity, which, in essence, prevents disabled students from fully participating. The Guardian often lowers requirements due to his or her perception that disabled students are not capable of producing high-quality work. The instructor who takes on the Rejecter role, in contrast, is one who refuses to make any accommodations at all. Such instructors do not limit contact as the Avoider does or provide unnecessary modifications like the Guardian. Instead, the Rejecter manages the classroom in such a way that it is nearly impossible for students with disabilities to function. Often the student will completely withdraw from classroom activity and shut down emotionally. The final role identified by Hart and Williams is that of the Nurturer. Instructors who take on this role perceive students with physical challenges as needing some accommodations, but they also work to challenge them and to treat them as normally as possible. The Nurturer will also work to ensure that other students treat their disabled counterparts in a positive manner.

A significant dilemma arises in determining how much accommodation, and what type of accommodation, should be made for students with disabilities. How do teachers strike a balance between too little assistance and too much? Newberger (1994) identified three important responsibilities that university faculty have in providing accommodations for students with disabilities. These are (a) maintaining academic standards, (b) assessing student ability based on what the student can accomplish instead of what the student is incapable of accomplishing, and (c) eliminating, altering, or substituting any assignments for the student with disabilities if it will not be detrimental to the overall academic program.

Engagement Theory: A Rationale for Modification

In recent years most higher education theorists have come to advocate a student-oriented instructional philosophy in which students are encouraged to be actively engaged in the learning process (Astin, 1993; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Haworth & Conrad, 1997). This theory of engaged pedagogy includes an emphasis on interactive instruction, collaborative problem-solving, class discussion involving diverse student perspectives, a respect for different ways of learning, and an effort to connect the subject matter to the students’ life experiences. Communication instructors have long considered student performances and group problem-solving to be an integral part of learning communication skills, and the recent pedagogical emphasis on student engagement has lead to an even greater focus on student-oriented instructional strategies (Shelton, Lane, & Waldhart, 1999; Worley, Titsworth, Worley, & Cornett-DeVita, 2007). As communication instructors, we have based our pedagogical strategies on this student-centered teaching philosophy. We agree with Hunt (2003), who stated that students learn more when they “are highly involved and engaged in the learning process” (p. 133). Since our classes are relatively small, they are often highly interactive. Our students share their ideas, experiences, and perspectives as we encourage them to analyze and debate theory and issues related to the course content. Communication students frequently participate in classroom problem-solving or application activities designed to illustrate or practice the skills taught in the course. We try to employ real-world examples that relate the course content to students’ lives. We hold high academic expectations and try to help students reach their potential.

As student-friendly as this pedagological approach is, we came to realize that its application could actually limit the involvement of some students. Because of his physical challenges, Michael had trouble participating in many of our standard class activities. Thus, as we began our journey with Michael through various communication courses, we tried to find the answers to three research questions:

  1. How should communication educators modify their teaching practices to meet the learning needs of a student who has multiple physical disabilities?
  2. How do these accommodations affect the student with disabilities?
  3. How do these accommodations affect the non-disabled students in the classroom?


The study was conducted at a private southern university. Due to the unique opportunity of having a student with multiple physical disabilities who took several courses from each of the researchers over a period of two years, we chose to use a single case study methodology based primarily on participant observation. Yin (1989) argued that the case study approach is preferred when answering “how” and “why” questions about a contemporary event. Case studies are best used to investigate a “set of decisions: why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what result” (p. 22). In this case, we discuss changes made in our pedagogical strategies and the results of our decisions about how we should provide the needed accommodation for Michael while still maintaining student engagement and the academic standards of our communication classes.


The primary participant and the inspiration for this study was Michael, a white male college student who has cerebral palsy. During the study the two researchers also served as active participant-observers as we worked with Michael within and beyond the classroom. Each of the researchers taught Michael in at least three different communication courses and worked individually with him outside of class.

Michael’s “challenges,” as he calls them,3 are primarily related to his motor control and speech production. He has dystonia, a neurological disorder that involves problems with muscle coordination. He is unable to stand or walk, so he uses a motorized wheelchair to get around campus. His arm movements are very limited and often uncontrolled. Michael’s speech is described by a speech and language therapist as “excellent for a person with cerebral palsy” (M. Marian, personal communication, January 2008). He has learned to slow down and articulate clearly, although he does have tonal difficulties. Michael employs an academic assistant, a retired public school teacher who has worked with him for two years. She accompanies him to classes, takes notes for him, and assists him by writing exams and papers as he dictates to her.

We obtained IRB approval for the study, as well as statements of informed consent from both the student and his academic assistant. We also obtained a waiver of confidentiality from the student. This wavier was necessary because the student was well-known and recognizable to almost everyone on our small campus. However, in all research reports we have used the pseudonym Michael, chosen by the student, in order to protect his anonymity.

Data Collection and Analysis

We collected data over a two-year period using the multiple methods of participant observation, analysis of student papers, and in-depth interviews. Such methodological triangulation is useful in providing trustworthiness in a qualitative research study (Baxter & Babbie, 2004; Yin, 1989). All data was transcribed and analyzed using a constant comparative approach. Both researchers reviewed the transcripts numerous times over the course of the study, both independently and collaboratively, agreeing on the categories of information that eventually emerged.

The data collection for this study consisted of three components. First, the researchers observed Michael in various speech communication courses over a two-year period. Each researcher kept extensive field notes on the classroom accommodations that were made for Michael, recording what concerns arose, how we responded, and the comments and observable reactions from Michael and his classmates. We also kept a journal of our thoughts and feelings during the process.

Second, we examined papers written by Michael and the other five students who were in his semester-long group during a Small Group Communication class. The researchers analyzed these documents, noting the students’ first impressions of the other group members, their responses to the accommodations that were made for Michael, and any recorded changes in their thoughts and feelings about working together in the group over the course of the semester.

Finally, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with Michael. We used an unstructured interview format that was oriented toward discussing the cause and extent of Michael’s physical limitations, his previous experiences with accommodation and lack of accommodation, and his reactions to the various classroom modifications that we made. Due to the flexibility of the unstructured approach Michael was able to help shape the direction of the interviews, to freely construct his answers, and to offer interpretations of his experiences. We conducted secondary interviews with Michael’s academic assistant and with a speech and language therapist. The therapist observed a videotape of Michael giving a speech, evaluated his speech patterns, and made suggestions for adapting our teaching methods to his speech limitations. Each interview was recorded and transcribed, and each transcription was reviewed by the interviewee to help reduce misinterpretation and researcher bias.


The first research question was how should communication educators modify their instructional pedagogy to meet the learning needs of a student with multiple physical disabilities? We found that decisions about accommodations were necessary in four areas: overall course requirements, learning activities, class discussions, and particular speaking and writing assignments.

Course Requirements

Adapting to Michael’s needs required a shift in our way of thinking about how to accomplish our course objectives. However, we also wanted to avoid what Lauffer (2000) called “overaccommodation” (p. 43). Lauffer argued that going too far in modifying class requirements may result in problems for students in their other courses and in their future careers. As Hart and Williams (1995) pointed out, weak requirements deny these students “the satisfaction of working and achieving the goals of the course” (p. 147). We did not believe that Michael needed lower standards.. However, we anticipated that some of our usual course requirements might be difficult for him to manage, and decided to modify them for all students. For example, in Nonverbal Communication, I (first author) usually require a research paper based on journal articles relating to a specific type of nonverbal message. Knowing how difficult it is for Michael to write papers, I decided to give all of the students the option of either writing the research paper or working in a small group to try to replicate the results of a research experiment. I assumed that Michael would prefer to work with others on the project so that his fellow group members could do some of the things that would be difficult for him (such as writing up the results). This attempt at accommodation had interesting results in that Michael ultimately chose to do the research paper rather than work with a group. This surprised us, since Michael is quite outgoing and usually enjoys working with other students. Worley et al. (2007) asserted that students learn best when they experience some degree of independence from the teacher and other students. Since Michael is dependent on others for many of his daily activities, perhaps this choice was his way of exerting his independence through his school work.

Learning Activities

We are accustomed to using a variety of instructional activities through which we encourage students to become actively involved in the classroom and to “try on” new communication behaviors. However, we came to understand that many of these activities involve movements that are difficult for Michael. We tried to anticipate these problems by asking ourselves if there might be a different way to do the activity that would not be particularly difficult for Michael and that would still accomplish the goals of the exercise. Since Michael cannot produce written work as quickly as other students, we often decided to make changes in our classroom activities that involved written responses. In the Nonverbal Communication course, for example, I require a series of observation assignments. After considering Michael’s needs, I decided to give students the option of reporting their observations orally. For other assignments, such as observing the effect of the environment on messages, I gave the students a checklist to complete. The checklist was much easier for Michael to finish than the assignment of writing a one to two page description would have been.

Many of the modifications that we made to classroom learning activities occurred on the spur of the moment. In my Intercultural Communication class I (first author) do an activity that illustrates how the concept of personal space can vary among different cultures. The students are asked to stand up and spread out around the room, getting as far away from each other as possible. Then they are instructed to all move into half of the room, then into a fourth of the room, etc. Beginning the activity, I said, “Everyone, stand up and move . . . .” At this point, Michael started laughing. Then he said, “That’s really funny, Dr.(first author).” Of course, it was obvious that Michael could not stand up, and furthermore, he could not freely move his wheelchair into various parts of the room due to physical barriers. Although I was a bit embarrassed by the gaffe, I immediately modified the exercise by having the other students move in relation to Michael’s position, gradually crowding them into the area of the room where he had taken up residence. This incident led to a valuable classroom discussion of how different individuals (as well as different cultures) define personal space, the amount of control we have over that space, and how we respond to others who violate our space. When we touched on Michael’s perception of personal space, we all came to better understand Braithwaite and Braithwaite’s (2003) assertion that people with disabilities are beginning to perceive themselves as a unique culture group.

As instructors, we also tried to solicit Michael’s perspective on how to avoid awkward situations. Sometimes we would briefly talk with him before class, saying “This is what I am planning to do and these are my learning objectives. What is the best way for you to do this?” Then we would negotiate his suggestions. A striking example of Michael’s attitude toward his disability illustrates how these negotiations worked. In the Intercultural Communication class, I teach the Behavioral Assessment Scale for Intercultural Competence (BASIC), developed by Jolene Koester and Margaret Olebe. One of the skills in the BASIC model is the capacity to display empathy. To illustrate this concept, I have the students participate in several empathy activities in class. In one activity, students are asked to use a wheelchair for a period of time and attempt to do common actions, such as opening a door, getting around in a crowded hall, drinking from a water fountain, and going to the restroom. This is an activity that I have used many times with a high degree of success, but we were concerned about how Michael would perceive the exercise. About a week before the class activity was scheduled, I described the activity and its purpose to Michael and asked him what his feelings were about it. His response was, “It sounds like fun! Can I give them hints?” My response was, “Sure, and you can give me hints about other things to have them do!” By soliciting Michael’s input in advance, we were able to eliminate the potential for awkwardness and to increase the value of the activity. In fact, we saw that in this activity Michael had an opportunity to act as a role model, and that Michael’s participation heightened the other students’ sensitivity to the many barriers encountered by people with physical limitations.

Class Discussion

We noticed that sometimes Michael had problems participating in class discussion, which seemed unusual since he is normally quite gregarious. On examining this more closely, we found that as students became excited about an issue under discussion, they would often interrupt each other or jump in quickly with their comments. Since Michael’s speech rate is slower and the time that he needs to produce the initial sounds is a bit longer than that of other students, it was easy for him to be left out. We dealt with this problem in several ways. Michael always sat in the front of the room. This reminded us to give him a chance to talk and to ask him what he thought about the other students’ comments. He also developed a system of waving his arms if he wanted the class’s attention in order to say something. Other students picked up on this system and reacted by including him more.

As instructors we believe that it is important for us to relate the concepts that the students are learning to their life experiences. We soon discovered that Michael was very open about discussing his disabilities. He did not mind self-disclosing on the subject of his limitations or describing how other people responded to him. It was not uncommon in our classroom discussions to find that students wanted to talk about what occurs when people without disabilities interact with people with disabilities, particularly in terms of nonverbals, language usage, and the emotions involved. Michael willingly shared with the class examples from his own experiences. Other students, in turn, were able to talk about their experiences in interacting with individuals who have physical disabilities and to present questions to Michael. Often this discussion occurred naturally in the flow of class conversation when we asked students to give examples from their lives. At other times, we intentionally brought up ideas relating to disability communication. For example, one semester a campus speaker who was heard by many of our students used offensive language in his presentation, including words such as “cripple” and “weakling” to refer to a paraplegic. The speaker was attempting to present a dramatic example to illustrate a point, and many of the students in the audience laughed. Outside of class I (first author) asked Michael what he thought of the speaker, and Michael said, “I found him crude and offensive. I was angry.” During a class discussion I brought up this topic as an example of how speakers often perpetuate stereotypes and show a lack of empathy for others. Michael spoke up to share with the other students how he felt about the speaker’s attempt at a humorous example, conveying the lack of sensitivity and offensiveness of the entire message. This event was a learning experience about the power of language that had a strong effect on many of the students.

Speaking Assignments

Since Michael is confined to a wheelchair, he is unable to perform many of the requirements that are traditionally mandated in an oral presentation. For example, he cannot stand, and therefore it is impossible to assess his posture. Likewise, his arm movements are somewhat uncontrollable so an evaluation of gestures is highly problematic. This situation led to a great deal of anxiety on my part (second author). How could it be possible to accurately evaluate Michael’s oral presentations in my Advanced Public Speaking class when he was unable to fulfill key components of the assignment? After consulting with Michael, we agreed that it would be appropriate to waive the parts of the nonverbal requirements that he was unable to fulfill while maintaining those that he could complete. For example, I did not evaluate Michael on his posture or gestures, but did evaluate his facial expressions, volume, and general tone of voice.

We encouraged Michael to pay special attention to the nonverbal aspects of his presentations that he could control. For example, when Michael becomes excited, his arms begin to move in what seems to be an uncontrollable manner. According to a speech therapist, “This is probably due to the fact that every time he uses his diaphragm to go into an articulatory movement, there is involuntary movement of other musculature . . . . When the diaphragm is involved, his arms and legs move” (M. Marion, personal communication, January 2008). These movements were distracting for audience members. When we discussed this problem with Michael, he said that he could usually keep his arm movements under control, but sometimes failed to do so during presentations. Thus, he was evaluated on how well he was able to minimize these distracting arm movements. Michael was required to complete the majority of the requirements of the oral presentation, including appropriate organization and structure, effective language usage, use of supporting materials and oral citations, visual aid requirements, and time restrictions.

Writing Assignments

Newberger (1994) suggested that communication instructors may need to substitute writing assignments for speaking assignments, or perhaps even completely waive speaking assignments, for students with certain disabilities. However, due to Michael’s particular challenges, we found that it was better to substitute oral assignments for written ones. For example, we modified Michael’s test-taking situation by allowing him to read the test questions and answer them orally, with his assistant transcribing his answers verbatim on the test form. This was done in the campus disability office to avoid distracting the other students and to help ensure academic integrity.

The most difficult course for Michael was the required Communication Research Methods class. Our greatest concern in this writing-heavy course was how to maintain the academic integrity of the assignments when Michael was unable to do his own writing. This concern was alleviated when we met with Michael’s academic assistant and asked her to describe the procedure that they followed for writing papers. She stated:

He tells me what he wants and I just type it up for him . . . . I help him to organize his papers, type the ones he needs, and make any corrections he wants. I never give him any help on the material. . . . [I] only correct grammar or punctuation.

Learning to use APA style was a particular challenge for Michael (as well as for other students).I explained to Michael that he would have to tell his academic assistant where to put every comma and period, what to capitalize, and what to put in italics. We did not want Michael to depend on his assistant to use the style correctly. It took several attempts, but eventually he learned to pay close attention to these details.

Michael’s Responses to Classroom Accommodations

Our second research question was, how do classroom accommodations affect the student with disabilities? In our study, we found that Michael was almost always willing to accept the challenge of trying to do what we asked him to do. Michael clearly has a strong and determined personality. Even when he was told by former teachers that he could not make it in college, Michael responded to the negative comments with a “you just watch me” attitude. He told us:

I was raised in a loving family who said “you can” and “you will.” My grandmother had the mindset of “if he gets hurt, I’ll bandage him up and send him right back out there.” She never let me out of anything. If there was something going on, I was the first one in the middle of it. So, getting back to the classroom . . . I’m willing to accept my limitations. . . . I don’t really think anything about it because I just know full well from the beginning that there will be some things that I can’t do the conventional way. I have to find other ways and be able to adapt.

We discovered that when considering accommodations it was very useful to just explain to Michael what we wanted to do and what the objectives were, and then to ask for his input on how to handle the situation. As Michael explained:

The best way I would know to go about . . . [teaching disabled students] is just to do what you guys do. Ask the person who actually lives with the challenge. They’re going to be the ones that can tell you how they have done it in previous situations and hopefully they will be able to offer some new ideas to make it work.

One area where Michael resisted our suggestions was in the area of assistive technology. For example, we suggested that he should try to use the voice recognition software to write his papers. However, Michael had tried this technology in the past and found that the program had trouble recognizing his vocal patterns. We thought that he would be more independent if he could use the program and encouraged him to continue trying. He preferred the system that he and his assistant had developed. Because Michael writes by orally dictating to his academic assistant, his writing style was somewhat choppy. He needed to learn to revise and rewrite. Since he did not want to use the voice recognition program, we urged him try to try to work alone with a simple audio recorder. We suggested that he dictate to the recorder like he does to his assistant, and then listen to the result and revise it until he was satisfied with the final version (which his assistant then transcribed). Michael was willing to give this a try, and through this method he was able to improve his focus on details and the transitions between ideas in his senior research project.

We also insisted that Michael learn to use basic PowerPoint slides when he gave oral presentations. Although not absolutely necessary for understanding, the slides helped the audience to follow his speeches. It took some practice, but Michael learned to use PowerPoint to make the slides, and he then had another student change the slides for him during his speeches. In his future career, he can acquire a switch adapted to his chair so that he will only need to hit a button or lever to change the slides himself.

Other Students’ Responses to Classroom Accommodations

Our third research question was, how do classroom accommodations affect the other students who do not have disabilities? We want all of our students to have a positive classroom experience, and we realized that some students might feel uncomfortable or anxious when interacting with a student who has cerebral palsy. We usually begin the semester with classroom introductions, and we found that this activity was especially important in easing tensions related to the presence of a disabled classmate. We found that the best way to deal with this situation was to let Michael handle it. Instead of simple introductory speeches, we let students ask questions to each other. Since Michael is so open about his challenges, he would usually mention them when introducing himself. In most classes at least one other student would ask Michael a question related to his disability, or at times we would ask such a question. This approach seemed to help the other students relax and become more interactive.

The first course that Michael took was Small Group Communication. In this class, I (first author) randomly assign students to a group with whom they must work for the entire semester. This allows students to experience group development over a period of four months. In examining the papers written by Michael’s group members, we noted that their first impressions confirmed our assumption that they would be apprehensive about interacting with Michael. Reflecting on her first class with Michael, one of the students commented, “I honestly did not want to make an idiot out of myself by saying the wrong thing and making a terrible impression.” Another student wrote:

Michael’s handicap [sic] caused me to be extremely intimidated by him. I think that my biggest fear of working with him was that he would make assumptions about me. I was afraid I would unknowingly say or do something that would offend him and that he would think less of me because of it.

Some of the students admitted that they initially had concerns about being in the same group with Michael. A male student said, “I was a little concerned with working with him because I didn’t know how well he would be able to communicate or if he would be able to make the out-of-class group meetings.” These students quickly found, however, that Michael was not only a productive member of the group, but also a strong encourager. One of his group members later commented, “Michael is a bit of a perfectionist,” and indicated that he constantly pushed the group to get their work completed. Another said, “Michael is a wonderful tension reliever . . . . When our meetings or class tasks would start to wear on us or we could not come to a consensus, Michael would distract us for a second, just enough to let our brains breathe.”

For their final project, the students in Michael’s group chose to work on a disability awareness program for the university. This allowed Michael to take a leadership role in the group project, which involved informing others about physical and social barriers on campus. The group’s final presentation included an insightful skit about what “I can” and “I can’t” do, in which the students pointed out that all people have limitations. The student that doubted Michael’s ability to be a part of the group wrote in his final analysis:

The fact that Michael is in a wheelchair is also a strength that we had as a group because it made our project personal to each one of us. We all got to know Michael quite well while we were working with him, and I think that gave us some emotional drive towards wanting the project to be done right.

By the end of the semester, it had become obvious that the small group communication class was a perfect way for Michael to begin his major. Due to the openness and flexibility of the course the instructor and the other students were able to get to know Michael and to learn about his abilities in the classroom. In this course Michael was able to make connections with students who would continue to be in his classes through the next two years. As Michael stated:

I knew that I would go through my major with that group of people . . . . The benefit for me was that it got those guys used to interacting with me because I knew I wouldn’t have a problem interacting with them . . . . [It] allowed them to get used to working with somebody who was a little bit different.

Michael was able to grow as a leader and as a role model and he became more accepted by the other students. Additionally, Michael’s classmates grew as they developed relationships with him and found that he was only different from them in a physical sense—in many other ways, Michael was very similar to his classmates, and by observing these similarities the other students were able to feel comfortable working with Michael as a fellow student and colleague.


In this case study, two communication instructors used engagement theory to involve a student with physical disabilities in learning activities, classroom discussions, and assignments. In the process, we hope that we have also provided a more comprehensive perspective of the role of the Nurturing teacher, as described by Hart and Williams (1995). As communication educators, we learned that adapting to Michael’s needs was not difficult, and that it did not disrupt or diminish our educational goals. However, fully engaging a student with physical disabilities did require careful forethought about our teaching strategies and creativity in coming up with ways to make appropriate modifications.

Four central conclusions about engagement and accommodation emerged from our work with Michael. First, we found that the entire process worked better when we “recognize one another’s presence” (hooks, 1994, p. 8). When we worked together as a team with Michael, talking about what we wanted to do, what accommodations had been effective, and what problems we had encountered, Michael not only felt involved in the process but also actively prevented us from making unwarranted assumptions. As his professors, we often helped each other by discussing what we did and/or what we should have done in the classroom, by getting ideas from each other, and by sharing our perspectives on successes and obstacles. We also found that experts in the community who work with people who have specific disabilities are invaluable sources of information. Our conversations with experts made us more aware of the physical basis of Michael’s limitations and gave us ideas about available technology and other means of accommodation.

Second, we found that university students who have disabilities want their voices to be heard. They want the freedom to make choices relating to their class participation, their learning experiences, and the types of modifications that will be made to accommodate their limitations. Michael made it clear that he had interests and opinions that he was not shy about expressing. He often looked for opportunities to take a leadership role in the classroom. However, other students with disabilities might not be as outspoken or as confident as he is. Such students would benefit from a teacher who encourages them to be independent in their thinking, to passionately express their opinions, and to follow their own interests.

Third, we found that instructors need to concentrate on their students’ abilities when considering accommodations. Our adjustments were most successful when we used Michael’s strengths to construct new activities or to modify old ones. It would be best for instructors to rely on the positive abilities of their disabled students when suggesting new assignments, new assessment methods, and new applications. All students will benefit from such changes. Many people have looked at Michael and seen only his disabilities, but after working with him for over two years, we view his disabilities only as frustrations that we need to work around. We asked Michael, “If you were to give a suggestion to university teachers who have students with physical disabilities in their classes, what would you tell them? Michael’s response was:

Don’t assume that they can’t do something just because they look different and they do things differently. The second piece of advice would be if you have any questions, ask them. They know the different types of situations that they have been in and can give you feedback based on how they reacted in different situations. The number one piece of advice would be “don’t assume.”

Finally, we found that teachers must communicate positive messages to all of their students about individuals with disabilities. This means they must first examine their own perceptions and emotions. Initial feelings of discomfort will subside as interaction with the student increases and with the realization that all students have limitations of some kind. As Hart and Williams (1995) suggested, the teacher should work to cultivate mutual respect, to reduce uncertainty, and to create an encouraging, inclusive learning environment. We had to adjust some of our teaching methods to accommodate Michael, but we quickly realized that he was able to meet rigorous academic standards. We also found that we could nurture other students by embracing the opportunity to work with individuals with disabilities in the classroom. The non-disabled students learned empathy, tolerance for uncertain communication situations, and sensitivity to others. As professors, we have learned to be more flexible and to listen to what our students have to tell us about what they can do and how they learn.

In summary, the bottom line is open communication between the classroom instructor and the student. The best pedagogy is to engage all students, regardless of abilities, in ways that achieve the learning goals of the given course. With a student who is affected by physical disabilities, instructors must be willing to modify their traditional methods, be more creative, and make changes in the way the course is taught. The particular changes will differ depending on the course and on the specific student’s needs. Other factors, such as room size, accessibility issues, and the technology available, may impact what modifications are used. However, inflexible teaching methods and limited views of what the student can do should not be barriers to the student’s active participation in the course. Instructors can find ways to engage the student in deciding how to make accommodations. They also must be willing to make changes and alter their teaching style. The ultimate goal is to enhance learning for everyone involved.


1We have used a pseudonym selected by the student involved in this case study to protect his privacy.

2According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2004), cerebral palsy is the result of a brain abnormality that interferes with a person’s ability to move in a coordinated manner. Cerebral palsy severely affects the balance of muscle tone, particularly in the arms and legs but also sometimes in the face and trunk. This results in uncoordinated and awkward muscular movements. There are differing levels of the disorder. Some individuals with cerebral palsy are confined to a wheelchair while others have the ability to walk. Some need constant care while others may not need any assistance.

3We are sensitive to how language choices can affect the perceptions of all parties involved in communication with people who have disabilities. We are also aware that there are varying opinions on this issue among people with disabilities. In this article we have tried to use labels with which Michael felt comfortable. For insight into various perspectives on this issue, see Braithwaite and Braithwaite (2003), Overboe (1999), and Stromer (1983).


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