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Disability, Mobility Impairments and Students with Disabilities

Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2012-01-12 : (Rev. 2016-03-31)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Students with disabilities may experience a range of different mobility impairments that might require accommodations in school or university settings.

Main Digest

Students with disabilities may experience a range of different mobility impairments that might require accommodations in school or university settings. The mobility impairments can range from ones related to a person's stamina to ones associated with paralysis.

Some of the mobility impairments students may experience involve conditions that are present from the time of their birth, while others are the result of physical injury or illness. A student's injuries may cause various types of mobility impairments and involve different areas of the student's spinal column, for example.

Students who experience back disorders might have limitations in their ability to stand, sit, bend, walk, or carry objects such as books or other school-related materials. Examples of back disorders include things such as scoliosis, degenerative disc disease, or herniated disks. Some students have paraplegia; something involving paralysis of their lower extremities that is caused by an injury to their lower back. Students with paraplegia many times use manual wheelchairs and have full use of their arms and hands. Students with quadriplegia experience paralysis of their extremities due to a neck injury, and do not have the use of their arms or hands, many times using power wheelchairs to achieve mobility.

Cerebral palsy is another form of disability students may experience. Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the person's brain either prior to, or shortly after, the person's birth. People with cerebral palsy have a range of abilities. Students who experience cerebral palsy may have a lack of muscle coordination, speech difficulties, or spasms.

Neuromuscular disorders involve many different forms of disorders. These disabilities can include ones such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or ataxia that result in degeneration and atrophy of the person's nerve and muscle tissues. Students with these forms of disabilities also have a range of abilities.

There are students who experience Post-Polio syndrome who may require accommodations to pursue education. It is important for educational facilities to be aware of issues related to the late effects of polio. Students with post-polio syndrome can experience symptoms that include weakness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and pain.

Disabilities such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Progressive Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and Progressive Bulbar Palsy (PBP) belong to a group of disabilities referred to as, 'Motor Neuron Diseases.' Students with these forms of disabilities can experience symptoms that include weakness, numbness, difficulties with breathing, and loss of upper and lower motor functions. Educational facilities need to be prepared to accommodate students with these forms of disabilities.

Despite the perceptions among some of arthritis as something seniors experience, many young people experience forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis. Other people experience osteoarthritis or other forms of arthritis, which involves inflammation of the person's body joints. The symptoms students with arthritis can experience include swelling, pain, and difficulties with body movement.

Students may experience a range of mobility impairment that are orthopedic. These students might experience any of the following:

Awareness of Students with Disabilities and Mobility Impairments

Educational facilities need to be aware that a number of students who experience mobility impairments lead lives that are very similar to those led by students without mobility impairments. Helplessness and dependency are not characteristics of physical disability. Students adjust to the forms of disabilities they experience in a variety of ways. Educational facilities, staff members, and instructional staff must not assume that students with disabilities are either brave or courageous simply on the basis of the disabilities they experience.

Mobility impairments can range from temporary disabilities such as a broken arm or leg, to permanent forms of disabilities such as osteoarthritis or paralysis. Students might experience conditions such as respiratory conditions that have the potential to affect their endurance and coordination, also potentially affecting their ability to perform in the classroom.

Many times, a physical disability is separate from matters related to general health or cognition. A physical disability of itself does not imply that a student has additional health issues, or difficulties with intellectual functioning. Students who experience physical disabilities might not desire assistance in specific situations; it is important to ask them before giving them assistance and then wait for a response. It is important for educational facilities and staff members to listen to any instructions students with physical disabilities may give them. A student with a physical disability is more likely to be aware of the safest and most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand than a staff member at an educational facility in many instances.

It is vital for educational facilities, staff members, and instructional to understand that a wheelchair is a personal-assistance device and not something a person is, 'confined to.' A wheelchair is also a part of a student's personal space - do not lean on a student's wheelchair or push their wheelchair, unless you are asked to do so. When speaking with a student who uses a wheelchair, it is important to try to speak with them at eye level instead of standing and looking down at them. If a student experiences a communication impairment in conjunction with a form of mobility impairment, it is important the time to understand the student. If you do not understand, say so. Be considerate, and take the additional time it may take for a student with disabilities to either act or speak. Give the student the opportunity to set the pace. A number of common accommodations for students with mobility impairments might include:

Physical access to an educational facility must not be the first barrier a student with a mobility impairment finds themselves dealing with on campus. Things such as a lack of reliable transportation, temporary construction, outright lack of physical accessibility, or mechanical issues with a wheelchair can all have a significant impact on the experiences of students with mobility impairments.

Accommodation Suggestions for Educational Facilities

The following suggestions may enhance the accessibility of educational facilities in relation to classrooms and participation. The suggestions are general and are meant to support students with mobility impairments. If an educational facility is in doubt about how to assist a student, they can always ask the student themselves.


Instructors can include a Disability Access Statement on syllabi, and invite students with disabilities to ask for accommodations they need. If needed, an instructor can arrange for a change in rooms prior to the start of a term in order to accommodate a student. Unique seating arrangements might be needed to meet the needs of students with mobility impairments, who may require lowered tables, special chairs, or spaces for wheelchairs. During lab courses, students who use wheelchairs might need lab tables that are lower to accommodate their wheelchairs, allowing them to use the lab equipment. If at all possible, it is important not to seat students who use wheelchairs in the back row of the class. Instead - move a desk, or rearrange the seating at a table so the student is a part of the rest of the seating in the classroom.


Educational facilities, staff members, and instructional staff need to give students with disabilities the same anonymity as any other student on campus, avoiding things such as pointing out a student or the arrangements made for them to the rest of a class. Students who experience upper body weakness might not have the ability to raise their hands in order to participate in classroom discussions. Instructors should make eye contact with students, calling on them when they indicate their desire to contribute. It is important for instructors to ensure that accommodations exist for in-class written work, such as permitting students to use a scribe, adaptive computer technologies, or the ability to complete an assignment outside of the classroom.

Instructors must be flexible with deadlines they impose. Assignments that require work in the library, or access to sites that are off-campus, consume more time for students with mobility impairments. If a field trip is planned, arrangements need to be made early to ensure that accommodations are in place for the trip such as site accessibility and transportation.

The educational staff at facilities must understand that for reasons beyond their control, students who experience mobility and other forms of disabilities might be late to class. Some students do not have the ability to move quickly from one place to another because of architectural barriers, temporary obstacles on campus, or public transportation. Not every mobility or other form of disability is constant and unchanging. Some students with disabilities experience aggravation of the symptoms they experience or relapses that may require bed rest or even hospitalization for a period of time. The majority of the time, students are able to make up uncompleted work, although they may need additional time.

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