George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

Supporting Students With Hidden Disabilities

Differentiated modes of instruction can provide much-needed resources for students who need additional support.

April 1, 2022
High school teacher speaking to students in classroom
SolStock / iStock

At some point in every new relationship, the question arises: “Why can’t you do X?” X is something that most people do without thinking and take for granted; it holds a lifetime of assumptions and experiences impossible to adequately articulate.

When people first meet me, they think that I am normally sighted. It’s only after a little while that The Question comes up. My disability is visual, congenital, and in that in-between level of severity—not blindness, but enough to prevent me from doing certain everyday actions, like driving, and not immediately apparent.

There were times during the pandemic when all of us—even those who previously wouldn’t have considered themselves disabled—experienced diminishment from not being able to engage in major life activities. Teachers leveraged the power of online platforms for delivering content in multiple and more engaging and accessible forms. Mindfulness of the social and emotional needs of our students became a top priority. 

We designed learning experiences around engagement and relevance using approaches like project-based learning (PBL) and Universal Design for Learning. These strategies were looked upon by many as boutique or niche before the pandemic, but they have proven to be of more universal importance. Given what we’ve learned, it’s important to make these practices the default for all students instead of the exception for those who are disabled.

Develop Empathy, Not Sympathy

There is a natural and healthy desire among students—particularly as they enter their teenage years—to develop and prove their own identity independently from their family. For students with hidden disabilities, it’s even more acute. There’s an equally strong desire among teachers to shield students from the inequities and adversities that their disabilities engender.

While it may not directly correlate to a specific disability that one of your students has, doing something intentional and ascetic like relying entirely on public transportation (not a taxi or Uber) for an extended period of time can vastly change your perspective on the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

When you walk or ride the bus, you share space with a segment of the population that people in cars often don’t interact with or even notice. In Honolulu, nearly 90 percent of frequent riders of public transit earn below the average median income, and a quick glance around any bus will reveal a disproportionate share of the marginalized of our society—the young, the elderly, the economically challenged, the houseless, and, yes, the disabled. As one of them, I would venture to say that these folks would appreciate genuine affirmation and empathy, not pity.

Invite, but Don’t Force

The biggest apprehension I had as a student wasn’t about meeting new classmates or teachers. It was about where I’d be seated. Sitting anywhere but front and center would necessitate either an awkward conversation with the teacher or squinting at the board and hoping that the teacher would say important information in addition to writing it.

Students with disabilities may not feel comfortable approaching teachers directly, and their disabilities may not be documented in school records. Create avenues for students to provide you with input that doesn’t involve direct conversation. We learned how to do this during the pandemic using such tools as Google Forms. In many pre-pandemic classrooms, a premium was placed on getting students to participate and contribute orally and extemporaneously.

While those modes of communication are undoubtedly crucial and should continue to be emphasized, many of us have also learned that several students would choose other ways of expressing themselves if given a choice. Particularly for students with invisible disabilities, having a nonthreatening channel of communication like a chat app, a virtual bulletin board, or even a backroom channel to share concerns and needs with teachers and classmates can be a vital lifeline. Let’s continue to keep those avenues open.

Continue to Offer Varied Resources

It can be tremendously comforting for students to access and consult resources outside of class without having to request them. During the pandemic, teachers went from simply using premade instructional videos to making our own, guided by research-based best practices from such sources as the Modern Classrooms Project.

We learned how to structure our classes so that students could have more agency in deciding how they would learn by incorporating approaches like PBL. We learned about instructional models like flipped classrooms and self-paced mastery-based instruction. Let’s continue to provide those resources because they could be a lifeline for students with invisible disabilities.

Rethink Deadlines

As teachers, we’re constrained by the clock. We want to make sure that all of our planned activities fit into the period and that the content we are responsible for fits into the year.

While much of this is inescapable, it can make a world of difference to students with disabilities if there’s a little more breathing room. By necessity, we learned how to take the emphasis off of time-constrained summative assessments during the pandemic by focusing instead on formative assessments using tools like Google Forms and Pear Deck, and by shifting our remaining summative assessments to more student-centered models like PBL. Why not continue these practices—not just for students with disabilities but for all students—going forward?

One of our foremost concerns is the student who’s struggling academically, but it may also be the case that one-on-one tutoring is the antidote. For students with a disability, it may not be the content itself that is problematic, but the way that content is delivered. Providing students with different ways of accessing that content, whether it be through videos that can be rewound and rewatched or through text and diagrams that can be resized and reformatted using technology, may be all that’s needed and benefits not only students with disabilities but all students.

Almost all of us are invisibly disabled in some way, whether physical or emotional, lifelong or induced by the pandemic, and helping students rise above these challenges is a vital part of every teacher’s toolbox. Differently abled students aren’t looking for sympathy and aren’t defined by their disabilities. They have a lifetime of perseverance and courage to draw upon, and there is so much that they can contribute. They need only a fair and equitable chance to do so.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Blended Learning
  • Education Equity
  • 9-12 High School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation