Firefighter Training, Fireground Safety

Teaching Fire Safety to Students with Learning Disabilities

By Vincent J. Vitiello, L.S.W.

The term “learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic processes involved in understanding spoken or written language. It may show up as a problem in a person’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math, despite at least average intelligence. The term “learning disabled” does not refer to children who have learning problems, which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or physical handicaps; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. It must be emphasized that individuals with learning disabilities are of average or above-average intelligence; and, simply stated, a learning disability is a discrepancy between one’s ability and one’s achievement.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal mandate that serves to address this discrepancy by requiring school districts to provide certain accommodations in the least restrictive manner to enhance the learning environment for students with learning disabilities. Therefore, students with learning disabilities are very often “mainstreamed” or included in the regular classroom. However, these students usually receive some form of additional educational assistance or accommodation as determined by their particular learning disability.

Common types of learning disabilities are listed below:

  • Dyscalculia: a severe difficulty in understanding and using the symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics.
  • Dysgraphia: a severe difficulty in producing handwriting that is legible and written at an age-appropriate speed.
  • Dyslexia: a severe difficulty in understanding or using one or more areas of language, including listening speaking, reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Dysnomia: a marked difficulty in remembering names or recalling words needed for oral or written language.
  • Dyspraxia: a severe difficulty in performing drawing, writing, buttoning, and other tasks requiring fine motor skill or in sequencing the necessary movement.

Although a multisensory strategy is viewed as the ideal instructional method to enhance learning in students without learning disabilities, the incorporation of multisensory strategies is vitally important when providing instruction to students with learning disabilities. This type of approach capitalizes on visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic stimuli. Essentially, it is an educational strategy that includes sight, hearing, and touch components.

You must take into consideration a multisensory approach when presenting fire safety lessons. Make every effort to incorporate sight, hearing, and touch components. For example, give students the opportunity to don ad doff turnout gear. Depending on the developmental level of the students, include other equipment such as PASS devices, flashlights, gloves, protective hoods, personal accountability tags, the sound of self-contained breathing apparatus, the sound of an activated smoke detector, and so on.

Demonstrate and encourage student participation in various simulated exercises-for example, crawling low under simulated smoke, feeling doors and doorknobs prior to opening, and diagramming floor plans and escape routes. You can use videos, PowerPoint presentations, computer games, and the like, but they should not be the only learning tools. If you show slides or write on the chalkboard, give students that information in the form of handouts as well in case they cannot grasp the information. A multisensory strategy enhances the overall fire safety learning experience.

For further information on learning disabilities, visit the following Web sites:


    Vincent J. Vitiello is a captain/executive officer with the Maplewood (NJ) Fire Department. He is a state-certified fire official and level 2 fire instructor. He has one bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from William Paterson University and another in fire safety administration from Jersey City State University, He is a licensed social worker with one master’s degree in public administration from Kean University and another in social work from Fordham University.