Consider how to craft a syllabus disability statement that students will read and will encourage them to seek help with their learning.
When you include a disability statement on your syllabus, do your students…
- Ignore it completely
- Read it and feel like it is cold and unwelcoming, or
- Read it and feel a sense of belonging
Of course, we’d like to think that it’s always C. Unfortunately, many students at best ignore disability statements and at worst experience them as exclusionary.
Why is this? And how can we craft our disability statements to reflect the welcoming communities of our courses, our departments, and the university as a whole?
Important note: All Ball State courses are required to include the syllabus statements detailed on the website for the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. The discussion in this article is intended to supplement these materials, not replace them.
Who Can Get Help?
An important consideration for disability statements is who is represented within them. For legal reasons, the required disability statement specifically identifies individuals who need course accommodations and have a documented disability on file with the Office of Disability Services.
What this doesn’t cover, though, are students who do not have a disability on file with Disability Services. This can be because they cannot afford the healthcare necessary to receive an official diagnosis, did not seek diagnosis, are still in the process of being diagnosed, or were misdiagnosed.
While it can obviously be hard to estimate how many students fit this category, research from the National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that more than half of children with learning disabilities, such as ADHD or dyslexia, are unidentified and undiagnosed.
A great first step to improving disability statements is offering help to these students. More on this shortly.
Warm and Welcoming Language
There is an increasing body of literature and movement among teachers to craft warm and welcoming syllabi. One of the foundational articles about warm syllabi, Harnish & Bridges (2011) points to 6 characteristics of warm language: “(1) using positive or friendly language; (2) providing a rationale for assignments; (3) sharing personal experiences; (4) using humor; (5) conveying compassion; and (6) showing enthusiasm for the course” (321).
Despite the benefits of warm language, required syllabus language such as disability statements still tends toward the cold and impersonal.
While much of the argument for warm language hinges on student perceptions, its use can have an impact beyond simply how students perceive us as teachers. The language you use on your syllabus and other materials can encourage or discourage students from seeking valuable help.
In one recent study (Gurung & Galardi, 2022), students were exposed to warm and cold syllabi, both with and without a “Reach Out” statement normalizing seeking help for difficulties and setbacks. Students exposed to the warm syllabus, which was adapted from Harnish & Bridges, were more likely to seek help across all categories, including help with assignments and help when dealing with personal issues.
When possible, shifting the language of syllabus statements like the disability statement to be warm and welcoming can have a profound impact on students. Stay tuned for more in a bit.
Rethinking Name and Placement
What you call your disability statement and where you put it on your syllabus sends implicit messages to your students.
The name “Disability Statement” implies that it is only relevant to students with disabilities, leading many students who do not identify as having a disability to ignore it. Further, placing the statement at the bottom of the syllabus, often alongside other “procedural” and “required” language frames it as unnecessary and unimportant to your course.
Instead we could consider placing the statement in a more prominent spot and naming it to be more applicable to all students.
Putting It All Together: A Sample Statement
What would a re-envisioned syllabus disability statement say? To review the previous 3 sections, it would:
- Welcome and speak to as many students as possible, including students who do not have a disability on file with Disability Services
- Use warm and welcoming language to frame the discussion
- Be placed prominently on the syllabus with a name that encourages all students to read it
While the Ball State disability statement is required for all courses, we invite instructors to include a secondary syllabus statement.
Here’s just one example of a statement framed as a “Universal Design for Learning Statement.” We’d love to hear your statements or thoughts in the comments.
Universal Design for Learning Statement
I have purposefully designed this course with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in mind. UDL is a framework for creating learning experiences that are flexible and designed to engage all students, regardless of individual differences. Throughout this course are elements that are designed to meet you where you are at as a student and allow you to take agency over your own learning. You know best how you learn, and I have taken steps to ensure that you can direct your own learning in a way that works best for you.
No course is perfect, though, and I am always growing and developing new ways of engaging all students. If you find that any course elements are interfering with your learning, or that changes to the course would benefit your learning, I’d like to invite you to email me to open that conversation. I may not always be able to make these changes, but I will always listen to you and discuss strategies to help you get the most out of this course. Please feel free to send me an email at any point, whether it’s Week 1 or Week 15.
Gurung, Regan A. R., and Noelle R. Galardi. “Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help.” Teaching of Psychology 49, no. 3 (July 2022): 218-223. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632.
Harnish, Richard J., and K. Robert Bridges. “Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course.” Social Psychology of Education 14 (2011): 319-330. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4.