Persons with Disabilities: From Experience to Principles

I am a visual learner so I tend to prioritize visual learning when designing learning experiences: showing what I mean using diagrams and pictures, drawing on visual metaphors to invite new connections, and calling on learners to draw tables, flow charts, and diagrams that demonstrate causal or relational links from one idea or action to the next.

When facilitating small and large group sessions, I like to invite learners to document their ideas on cards and post them either in a web chart or on a wall calendar or timeline – the more colors the better. My experience is that most of the learners appreciate these practices, but not all. To my regret, I have been caught flat-footed by participants with visual impairment.

Even though one participant came prepared with the learning design printed in Braille, the learning tasks did not invite her to put her best foot forward. Even though another participant was mobile because of a motorized chair, the walk-n-talks and the shifting partners of 2 x 2 or trios often demanded accommodations that brought attention to him. And even though a third participant expressed her thoughts and ideas with great wisdom and clarity, I found myself leaning forward, squinting, and bending over as if listening to a child due to her speech impairment.

I need to stretch my understanding and practice of inclusion well beyond the minimum of seeing to it that every voice is heard.

So what does inclusion in regards to persons with disabilities mean? What does it mean to demonstrate respect and safety for each and all? What does engagement look like? How will we design learning events so that all participants, including those persons with disabilities, are able to tell, show, and demonstrate their intelligence?

Practical Tips for More Inclusion

Designing and facilitating learning events with persons with disabilities in mind is a gift, an art, and a science. While not expert, here are a few practical tips for designing and facilitating learning that allows for fuller inclusion.


  • Make the effort to find out in advance who is coming with disabilities. Including a question in your Learning Needs and Resources Assessment can demonstrate both that you are ready, aware, and willing to respond, and that you welcome and encourage full participation. The question works best when placed as part of an overall assessment process, not all that different from asking if there are any special diets to consider. Ask a question about possible language challenges (e.g. dementia, low-literacy, different languages of origin) and try these ideas for designing to meet their needs.
  • When appropriate, ask if any are self-excluding themselves from the learning process and event because of a disability. Checking with the organizers in advance can again encourage fuller participation. Asking the question demonstrates an interest, concern, and desire to see everyone fully participate. This attitude of openness may also positively influence other aspects of the program.
  • Once you know who is coming, do the research you need to find out how they like to learn best. Inviting persons with disabilities to tell you what works can help increase their feeling of control and involvement – key factors that may lead to their success. When language or memory is a challenge for learners, we need to find other ways to support learning and plan for transfer. Check out these tips for concrete ideas that can help your design process.


  • Examine the room layout. Is there room for a wheelchair to move from the circle of chairs, to working tables, and back? Will the visually impaired person feel comfortable with seeing aids, including dogs, in the room? What else do you need to consider in the room layout to practice fuller inclusion? What about accessibility?
  • Design or adjust your learning objectives with your learners and their abilities in mind.
  • Consider the learners’ perspectives when writing learning tasks. Clarify your instructions in advance to ensure that persons with disabilities know how they can participate, and who will work together to be successful. As the facilitator, do a “dry run” with everyone in mind (Can that wheelchair get to the necessary location? Will the visually impaired person get the full weight of the research and theory? Can they learn alone or by doing with others?) Consider sharing the learning tasks in advance, perhaps during a break, so there is more confidence and predictability in the room.
  • Customize the production of the learning materials. A complete learning design helps all learners to participate. (Do you have the facilities to print the materials in Braille when needed? do you know where to go? Is there an appropriate reliance on visuals and descriptive text to ensure everyone can participate?) Check out these tips on designing written materials for people living with dementia.


  • Consider your facilitation stance. How will your voice and body language affirm and support learning for all without discriminating or sending unintended signals?
  • Choose the best place to sit and stand: Does it work best to be near the person with a speech impairment to avoid asking for repetition or using unintentional body language?
  • When setting the learning task, be sure that the task and how it will be accomplished is clear for each and all.
  • Intervene when you see or feel exclusion. Check in at the break, consult before the start of the event, or solicit feedback at the end of the event to illuminate concerns of exclusion.
  • Be sure to celebrate the successes and insights of each and all without discrimination.
  • Honor and name the efforts of each and all.

What tips would you add to this list, both from principle and your own experience?

Here’re additional GLP blogs and resources that you might be interested in:

Originally published March 24, 2014

Peter Noteboom is Co-owner and Past Board President of GLP. Here are other resources by Peter.