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Tips for Working with Students with Psychological Disabilities

The needs of students with psychological disabilities can vary widely and may change with the changing course of their disability. The most important way faculty can support these students is by being supportive and flexible.

Functional Limitations

The following functional limitations related to psychiatric disabilities may affect academic performance and may require accommodations (Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 1997).

  • Difficulty with medication side effects: side-effects of psychiatric medications that affect academic performance include drowsiness, fatigue, dry mouth and thirst, blurred vision, hand tremors, slowed response time, and difficulty initiating interpersonal contact.
  • Screening out environmental stimuli: an inability to block out sounds, sights, or odors that interfere with focusing on tasks. Limited ability to tolerate noise and crowds.
  • Sustaining concentration: restlessness, shortened attention span, distraction, and difficulty understanding or remembering verbal directions.
  • Maintaining stamina: difficulty sustaining enough energy to spend a whole day on campus attending classes; combating drowsiness due to medications.
  • Handling time pressures and multiple tasks: difficulty managing assignments, prioritizing tasks, and meeting deadlines. Inability to participate in multi-task work.
  • Interacting with others: difficulty getting along, fitting in, contributing to group work, and reading social cues.
  • Fear of authority figures: difficulty approaching instructors or TAs.
  • Responding to negative feedback: difficulty understanding and correctly interpreting criticism or poor grades. May not be able to separate person from task (personalization or defensiveness due to low self-esteem).
  • Responding to change: difficulty coping with unexpected changes in coursework, such as changes in the assignments, due dates or instructors. Limited ability to tolerate interruptions.
  • Severe test anxiety: the individual is rendered emotionally and physically unable to take an exam.

Instructional Strategies

Students with a psychological disability can be intelligent, sensitive, creative, and interesting. You can employ strategies that will promote their success in your class. For example:

  • Address a variety of learning styles (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic, experiential, or a combination of styles).
  • Incorporate experiential learning activities.
  • Be prepared to set behavioral expectations for all students in your class.
  • Embrace diversity to include people with psychiatric disabilities.


Some students with a psychological disability may require accommodations to allow them equal access to classes, programs, and coursework. An accommodation is the removal of a barrier to full participation and learning. The emphasis is on access, not outcome. This is done by providing the student with a disability equal access to the content and activities of a course, but not necessarily assuring their success.

The following are typical classroom, exam, and assignment accommodations that may be approved by SSD for a student with a psychological disability.

Classroom Accommodations

  • Preferential seating, especially near the door to allow leaving class for breaks.
  • Prearranged or frequent breaks
  • Permission to audio record lectures
  • Copy of notes from a volunteer notetaker
  • Permission to use a laptop for taking notes in class
  • Access to powerpoints or overheads shown in class
  • Student will raise hand to participate in class and/or will work with instructor to determine how participation will be assessed. Student should not be called upon at random
  • Permission to approach instructor to discuss flexible deadlines.  Final determination will be made by instructor based on the structure of the course.
  • Attendance may be an issue

Examination Accommodations

  • Extended time for test taking.
  • Test location in a reduced distraction environment

Not all requested accommodations are “reasonable.” An accommodation is not reasonable if:

  • Making the accommodation or having the individual involved in the activity poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.
  • Making the accommodation means making a substantial change in an essential element of the curriculum.
  • Making the accommodation would require a substantial alteration in the manner in which educational opportunities are provided, such as the course objectives being altered.
  • Making the accommodation would impose an undue financial or administrative burden to the institution.


American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed). Washington, DC: Author.

Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. (1997). How does mental illness affect the way I function at school? Boston University.

Additional Resources

DO-IT has created a collection of videos that can be freely viewed at Of particular relevance are the following titles: Building the Team: Faculty, Staff and Students Working Together, Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction, and Invisible Disabilities and Postsecondary Education. You may also find the following resources useful as you explore this topic further.

American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law

American Psychiatric Association

American Psychological Association

Anxiety Disorder Association of America (ADAA)

The Center for Universal Design in Education

National Mental Health Association

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.


This publication was developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #P33A990042. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2001, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.



Academic Accommodations for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities



For more general information about Psychological Disabilities, please click here.