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Teaching Students With Disabilities

Columbia is committed to ensuring that all members of our academic community have the opportunity to participate and to benefit from the academic programs, the co-curricular activities, and the services offered by the University. These pages provide a brief overview of responsibilities, policies, and resources regarding teaching students with disabilities.

Faculty are encouraged to design their courses to be inclusive and accessible for all students. The Center for Teaching and Learning provides a Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia and offers a variety of resources for faculty to help them understand the importance of universal design and to help them create inclusive classes. 

Columbia University Disabilities Services

Disabilities Services (DS) is charged with enabling the University to fulfill its federal mandate. DS determines necessary accommodation plans and services on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration students’ needs, as described in their disability documentation, and the academic requirements of their course of study.

Faculty may also consult with DS on the final determination of accommodations for each of their courses and for each student. Some accommodations may be appropriate in one course or program, but not in another and DS relies upon instructors to provide information regarding difficulties that might arise from a particular accommodation.

Typical accommodations include:

From the Faculty Handbook published by the Provost Office

From the Faculty Handbook published by the Provost Office:

       The University is sensitive to the needs of its constituents and is committed to facilitating equal access for anyone with disabilities. Special attention is given to the needs of disabled faculty and students in assigning classrooms that can accommodate those individuals. This will sometimes necessitate relocating classes after the start of a term.

       Disability Services, which is responsible for providing support for students with disabilities on the Morningside, Manhattanville, and Irving Medical Center campuses, works with faculty to ensure that the accommodations the students receive are consistent with course requirements, the academic standards of the programs in which those students are enrolled, and the clinical documentation submitted to Disability Services to support specific accommodations.

       While students with disabilities are expected to meet the same academic requirements as other students, they may require special arrangements in order to do so, such as recordings of class lectures, the assistance of a sign language interpreter, and extended time or separate space for in-class examinations. The Office of Disability Services informs faculty of any accommodations that need to be provided to students enrolled in their courses, directly or through the appropriate members of their dean’s staff, and encourages the students to discuss their needs directly with their instructors.

       Students with disabilities requesting accommodations are required to register with the Office of Disability Services and must provide current clinical documentation that verifies their disability status and accommodation needs. Faculty members are not required to make adjustments for students who have not registered with that office and are advised not to make academic adjustments on their own. Faculty should contact that office directly for additional information or with concerns about specific students.


Federal law and University policy and practice

Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990

The law requires colleges and universities to provide to students with disabilities reasonable accommodations that assist their full participation and engagement in their programs of study.

Such accommodations should not in any way undermine the integrity of the academic work required.

Rights and responsibilities

Students, instructors, and Disability Services (DS) all have rights and responsibilities in the process of ensuring that students receive the reasonable accommodations necessary for their full participation in their academic program. This page provides a brief oversight of these rights and responsibilities, but for more information you are referred to Disability Services.

Student Rights and Responsibilities

In order to ensure their rights to reasonable accommodations, it is the responsibility of students to report any learning-related disabilities, to do so in a timely fashion, and to do so through the Office of Disability Services. Students who have documented conditions and are determined by DS to need individualized services will be provided an DS-certified ‘Accommodation Letter’. It is students’ responsibility to provide this letter to all their instructors and in so doing request the stated accommodations.

Instructor Rights and Responsibilities

It is the right of all instructors to establish the academic standards for the courses that they teach and to consult with DS to determine what accommodations are reasonable for a given course. It is therefore the responsibility of an instructor to provide accommodations, as determined by the DS-certified ‘Accommodation Letter’, as long as they do not undermine the academic integrity of the course. Instructors are also responsible for evaluating the academic work of students with disabilities according to the same criteria of evaluation utilized for all other students in the class.

It is also the responsibility of an instructor to maintain student confidentiality. Instructors are expected to refrain from discussing a student’s disability with other students, to file accommodation requests in a secure location, and to provide opportunities for students to discuss privately their accommodation needs.

Lastly, while individual students with documented disabilities are entitled to reasonable and specific accommodations, instructors are responsible for fostering accessible learning environments for all students. Many strategies for teaching students with disabilities are known to benefit all students. These include:

  • Clear statement of course goals and objectives;
  • Clarity in course syllabus, schedule, and requirements;
  • Multiple modes of presentation - lecture, handouts, powerpoints;
  • Setting the tone for intellectually rigorous and socially courteous engagement with all students;
  • Including in syllabi a statement regarding classroom accommodations – for example:

"If you are a student with a disability and have an DS-certified ‘Accommodation Letter’ please come to my office hours to confirm your accommodation needs. If you believe that you might have a disability that requires accommodation, you should contact Disability Services at 212-854-2388 and"

Disability Services Rights and Responsibilities

Disability Services is responsible for working with students with disabilities to assess their academic needs, for assisting students in communicating with individual instructors regarding reasonable accommodations and, in some cases, for facilitating the implementation of the approved accommodations. DS shares the educational mission of all offices in the University and is therefore also responsible for upholding the academic policies established by the faculty and for the integrity of academic programs. DS therefore has the right to receive current disability documentation and to deny requests for accommodations that are not warranted or are not reasonable.

Contact information (Columbia and Barnard)

Columbia Disability Services

Disability Services
Wien Hall, Suite 108A, First Floor (map to Disability Services)
411 W. 116th Street, Mail Code 3714
New York, NY 10027
Phone: (212) 854-2388

There are two designated faculty liaisons should you have concerns about any student in your class, or the accommodations that have been requested for a student in your class, please contact the following staff:

  • Anuj Persad, Accommodations Coordinator
    • For exam administration related questions or concerns
  • Ashley Schleimer, Student Services Coordinator
    • For student/accommodation related questions or concerns

You may also wish to consult a student's academic adviser when making accommodations during a term. You can find the name and email address of a student's assigned adviser in CourseWorks, under "Photo Roster," then "List/Advisors." If you have more general advising questions, please contact one of the following individuals:

  • Columbia College or Columbia Engineering undergraduates:
    • Andrew Plaa, Dean of Advising, Berick Center for Student Advising, (212) 854-8829,
  • General Studies undergraduates
    • Marlyn Delva, Dean of Studies, The School of General Studies, (212) 854-2881,

Barnard Center for Accessibility Resources & Disability Services (CARDS)

Barnard College has a separate office for disability services to support Barnard undergraduates

Barnard Center for Accessibility Resources & Disability Services (CARDS)
101 Altschul Hall (map to Disability Services)
411 W. 116th Street, Mail Code 3714
New York, NY 10027
Phone: (212) 854-4634

The CARDS website has a page of Information for Faculty.

Classroom best practices for making courses accessible

Provided by Disability Services, these tips are based on classroom practices that both faculty and students have reported to be successful.

1. Students learn and engage in different ways.  To ensure your students are able to best learn and engage in your course, it may be helpful to:

  • Utilize multimodal teaching methods in which information is presented in multiple modes such as visual, auditory, and interactive.

2. Students may also differ in how they understand information.  Some students better understand verbal directions while others require written instructions to understand.  While providing instructions, particularly if providing students with an assignment or information about an assignment, it may be helpful to:

  • Provide this information both verbally and in a written format. 

3. For students who struggle to view a PowerPoint presentation from their seat or struggle to write down what is written on the PowerPoint presentation while also listening to faculty speak, it may be helpful to:

  • Make the PowerPoint available to students at least 24 hours before class.

4. For students who need to access their course materials in an alternate-format due to a visual disability or reading disorder, it may be helpful to:

  • Post any articles or other electronic course materials in a text, structured PDF format or word format.

5. Students may also require their textbooks in an alternate format.  In order for students to have their course materials in their needed format prior to the start of the semester or to get a head-start on the readings, it may be helpful to:

  • Post required textbooks and course readings approximately 4-6 weeks prior to the start of the semester.

6. Many students, including students with disabilities, can have difficulty negotiating class participation requirements for numerous reasons including but not limited to anxiety, a processing disorder (may take the student longer to respond), or a hearing disability.  To foster participation from all students in your course, it may be helpful to:

  • At the start of the semester, set the tone of a socially courteous environment.  Invite students who have concerns about this course requirement to discuss their concerns privately.  Provide all students with non-speaking opportunities to fulfill course participation requirements via an online discussion board or written comments at the end of class.    

Faculty FAQs

What are disability accommodations?

Accommodations are reasonable adjustments to policy, practice, and programs that “level the playing field” for students with disabilities and provide access to programs and activities at Columbia University.  Accommodations and services are customized to match the disability-related needs of each student and are determined according to documentation and the student’s program requirements.  Accommodations may include (please add links to each of the below):

  • Testing accommodations (e.g. extended time)
  • Services (e.g. note-taking, sign language interpreters)
  • Assistive technology (e.g. reading software)
  • Accessible/modified housing
  • Services to facilitate campus access

How are accommodations for students determined?

Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis after Disability Services considers the student’s needs as described in their disability documentation. Faculty also have the opportunity to consult with Disability Services on the final determination of accommodations for each of their courses and students. Some accommodations may be appropriate in one course or program, but not in another. For example, an accommodation of extended time might be appropriate for a course with in-class timed exams, but might not be in a course where students are evaluated solely based on papers or group presentations.

How will I know if a student with a disability is enrolled in one of my courses?

There are several ways faculty are notified that a student with a disability is taking your course, as described below, but generally faculty are not notified unless the student with a disability needs an accommodation. 

Undergraduate students registered with Disability Services will typically present an Accommodation Letter to you that outlines Disability Services’ recommendations for accommodations for your course.

  • At times, DS may email you with this information in order to make arrangements for accommodations in a timely manner or to facilitate the disclosure process on the student’s behalf.
  • Disability Services strongly encourages students with disabilities to present their Accommodation Letters at the beginning of the semester. However, some students elect not to for a variety of reasons. Disability Services advises these students that accommodations are not retroactive and are more difficult to arrange later in the semester.

What should I do if a student approaches me about an accommodation that was not included in the letter or email from Disability Services/graduate school liaison?

Faculty should refer students to Disability Services in order for the appropriateness of the student’s new request to be evaluated. Disability Services will review their request along with their disability documentation and consult with the faculty member to determine if the student’s requested accommodation is appropriate for that course. 

What should I do if I am concerned that a recommended accommodation is not appropriate for my course?

Please contact Disability Services to discuss your concerns in-depth with the student’s coordinator. The student’s coordinator will facilitate a deliberative discussion to determine appropriate accommodations for your course.

I have a student whom I suspect has a disability or disclosed that they have a disability but is not registered with Disability Services. What should I do?

  • If you suspect that a student in your course has a disability and is in need of accommodations, please contact Disability Services to discuss your concerns further. 
    • DS can provide consultation regarding how to discuss your concerns with the student.
    • Faculty and staff may also speak to students in a confidential space, and encourage them to meet to someone at DS.
  • Similarly, if a student in your course discloses that they have a disability and are in need of accommodations but are not already registered with DS, please refer the student to DS.

Why do students with disabilities often need testing accommodations?

  • Testing accommodations are designed to give the student access to the assessment and evaluation methods of the course.
  • Testing accommodations do not alter the content of the exam or what the student is required to demonstrate on the exam, but rather alter the administration of the exam.
    • Examples of testing accommodations include large print format, use of a computer to type the exam, use of assistive technology for the exam, and extended time to complete the exam.
  • The intention of testing accommodations is to remove barriers that traditional exam administration presents to the student due to their disability.

Can I administer my exam with accommodations myself?

Many faculty have been able to and prefer to coordinate these accommodations with assistance from their teaching assistants. If faculty members choose to provide accommodations, they must be prepared to:

  • Provide an appropriate testing environment, including a room that is quiet, offers minimal distractions, and provides the ability to take and complete the exam without interruption.
  • Ensure that students with disabilities have the same exam opportunities and resources as all other students (e.g., the opportunity to ask clarifying questions related to the exam).

My exam format includes a timed PowerPoint presentation, listening section, or a video clip.  Can Disability Services administer my exam?

There are several ways an exam including a non-paper format can be administered.  Such options are presented according to format:

  • PowerPoint Presentation:  Faculty typically email DS the PowerPoint presentation or bring the presentation to DS on a flashdrive, which DS is then able to reformat according to the student’s accommodations (i.e. if the class is shown a slide for 2 minutes, DS will re-time the slide to 3 minutes for a student eligible for 1.5x extended time)
  • Listening Section:  There are several scenarios in which this format is typically managed.  Often times, faculty will accommodate the student for such exams.  Other times a student may present to class for the listening portion of the exam and then proceed to DS to complete the written portion.  DS is also able to administer the entire exam including the listening section if that is the preference.  In order for DS to administer the listening section, faculty typically email DS the audio file or come to DS to record the section on a digital recorder.
  • Video Clip:  If there is only one copy of the video clip without sufficient time for DS to make a copy, a student may present to class to view the video clip and then proceed to DS to complete the written portion.  DS is also able to administer the entire exam including the video clip if that is the preference.  In order for DS to administer the video clip, faculty may email DS the video clip or bring the video clip to DS in its current format so a copy can be made. 

How do I make arrangements for a student to take an exam with Disability Services?

Undergraduate students approved by Disability Services for testing accommodations are either accommodated on exams by faculty or by Disability Services.  Faculty who prefer to have their students take their exams with DS will generally need to complete a Testing Accommodation Request Form (TARF) with the student.

  • The form is completed by both the student and professor in its entirety or DS will not accept the form.
  • For students taking their exams with DS, the student must submit this form two weeks in advance in order to make arrangements to take an exam with accommodations at DS.
  • This lead time is necessary so that DS can secure space and proctors to administer the exam.

Does Disability Services recommend a statement be put on my syllabus about students with disabilities? What should it say?

You may wish to include the following information about accommodations and services on your course syllabus: 

In order to receive disability-related academic accommodations, students must first be registered with Disability Services (DS) . More information on the DS registration process is available online at Faculty must be notified of registered students’ accommodations before exam or other accommodations will be provided. Students who have, or think they may have, a disability are invited to contact Disability Services for a confidential discussion at (212) 854-2388 (Voice/TTY) or by email at