Kenan Fellows Program Logo and page header graphic

Adapting Lessons to Support Students with Severe Disabilities

Sort/Compare and/or Classify

Lessons typically require that children sort, compare and/or classify items in some way. For most children this will be accomplished through a spoken, written, or physical interaction. For children who can’t use speech or other formal means of communication and have significant physical difficulties, you can help them sort, compare and/or classify by using one or more of the following approaches.

  • Use actual objects that are related to the activity and let students move them by sliding them to either side of the table or with a target on each side (e.g., certain color paper, picture of items to sort, etc.) ask child to move the items to the appropriate place.
  • Provide container for student to put items in that are meaningful to the activity.
  • Provide symbols of items and let student eye gaze to where the symbol goes.
  • Provide symbols representing same/different, animal/plant, or whatever categories are required for the activity. The present the items or options to be sorted. The student touches, looks or otherwise signals to the symbol representing the desired category as each item is presented. For example, Animal and Plant are presented as two categories. Then the student is shown a picture of a dog and must signal whether the dog belongs with the symbol for animal or plant.
  • Tell the student what the classification or category is (we are looking for things that are an animal), then present items to the student one at a time and the student signals when you show them or they hear you name an item from the target category.

Eye Gaze:

Eye gaze communication options allow students with severe speech and/or physical disabilities the opportunity to communicate by looking systematically at a desired target. Eye-gaze eliminates difficult motor responses, but requires an attentive communication partner to observe the student’s gaze. Eye gaze is setup by the communication partner providing the student with communication options (i.e., photographs, picture symbols, words, etc.) via a translucent board of some type. The student is asked to look at the choices and then look steadily at the item they want to select, communicate, etc. This is called “holding an eye gaze”. Often times the communication partner will ask the student to look at the communication option then look back at the communication partner in order to clarify that the eye gaze observed was indeed the desired selection. Various products can be utilized to set up an eye gaze communication system. You can make an eye gaze frame from a sheet of Plexiglas or any other clear material (i.e., clear card protectors or baseball card holders). Picture symbols, photographs and/or words written on paper, index cards, or post it notes can be used to provide the communication options around the outside of the communication board. The middle of the board should be cut out and left clear in order for the communication partner to see the student’s eyes and be able to read the eye gaze.

Eye Gaze Videos/Websites:

These videos give descriptions of eye gaze and/or show different students using eye gaze in various ways to communicate.

The following website give descriptions of eye gaze boards and their use.

Yes/No Board:

Many students with severe speech and/or physical disabilities are able to indicate a reliable yes/no response via eye gaze to yes/no symbols or words. Others have specific movements that represent yes and no for them (i.e., look up for “yes” and over to the left for “no” or use head nods, etc.). A simple yes/no board can be made out of poster board, ethofoam or other material according to the student’s needs and whether the student will look at or touch the target yes/no items. A yes/no board can be used via eye gaze, partner assisted scanning or direct selection(touching) to indicate the desired response to questions or express other needs within activities.


Simple Voice output devices:

The student can utilize simple voice output devices to respond, answer questions, and participate in classroom discussions. The teacher can program messages into the simple devices and the student can activate the device at the appropriate time in the activity, to answer a question, etc. These devices can be borrowed from various resources such as North Carolina Assistive Technology Project lending libraries, school assistive technology teams, speech and/or occupational therapy departments, or purchased from vendors.

Websites for devices:

Student’s personal communication device:

If the student has a personal communication device, the device should be the primary means of aided communication. The teacher, teacher assistant, and/or school therapist may need to explore the vocabulary on a device or complete what is called a device walk with the student to locate desired vocabulary. In completing the device walk, the communication partner locates the desired vocabulary items on the device and shows the student how to locate them. This assists the student in accessing the vocabulary more quickly and also gives the teaching staff the opportunity to know if the vocabulary is present. If the needed vocabulary is not present on the device, the staff will then have to decide to either program the target vocabulary onto the student’s device or locate words that could be used to describe the target vocabulary (i.e., if student doesn’t have the word volcano they could use the words hot mountain) so that the student can successfully communicate during the activity.


Light tech Options:

Light tech refers to no-computerized adaptations and supports. When devices or other computer options are not available the teacher can utilize light tech options to support communication, participation and learning. Laminated paper communication boards are one example of light tech options that can meet a student’s communication needs. The picture symbols, magazine photos, photographs, post it notes, word cards, etc. related to the science activity and/or question at hand can be arranged in tables in a word processing document, printed, and laminated for the student. Or the symbols can be cut out into individual cards and mounted on a piece of cardboard, a file folder, or foam core boards to create communication boards. Individual symbols can be attached using Velcro, clothes pins, putty, etc. so that they can be moved, presented individually or exchanged as part of the communication act. Often the teacher will show the student the symbols before asking a question, or explaining how the symbols will be used in the activity. The student can communicate by touching a desired symbol, looking at the symbol or indicating their choice through partner assisted scanning.

Handouts on web: