Mobility may be impaired by a number of conditions, some of which are
permanent, others of a temporary or intermittent nature. These conditions
include cerebral palsy, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis
(MS), Parkinson’s disease and repetitive strain injury (RSI). Back or neck
injuries may also affect general mobility. A stroke may result in temporary
or permanent loss of feeling or movement of part of the body – frequently on
Coordination and balance may be mildly or severely affected by any of these
conditions. Movement may be impaired by muscle spasms, numbness or pain. As
a consequence both manipulation of equipment and writing may be difficult.
Some students may be wheelchair users. Others will walk with the aid of
callipers, crutches or walking stick. Some students may suffer chronic
fatigue as a result of mobility difficulties, and for others there will be
extreme fluctuations of energy from day to day.
Speech and vision may also be affected in students with cerebral palsy and
multiple sclerosis for example, and in those who have suffered a stroke.
Mobility disability may also result from head injury (ABI – acquired brain
injury). Increasing numbers of students are returning to university
following vehicle or sporting accidents in which they have sustained some
degree of brain injury. Resulting impairment may affect speech, vision,
coordination, and the injury may also be responsible for personality
disorders or depression.
Depression is also often associated with degenerative conditions such as
multiple sclerosis. When speech is affected there may be difficulty
communicating with and relating to others.
Some cardiac and respiratory diseases may also affect general mobility.
Staff need to remember that some of these conditions are characterised by
periods of remission so the disability will not always be visible, and will
not always impact on the student’s ability to function in the university
The impact of a mobility disability on learning at university
The impact of a mobility disability on learning will vary according to the
specific disability. For most of these students, however, the issues of most
significance relate to physical access (to classrooms, laboratories,
equipment), participation (in field trips, off-campus visits) and the time
and energy expended in moving around campus.
Students may be affected in the following ways:
- When there is limited time to move between venues, students may miss the
beginning of a class.
- Fatigue is common for many of these students. Using facilities which others
take for granted, such as toilets, food-outlets, libraries, and lecture
rooms may be a major undertaking.
- Some students may experience functional difficulties: an inability to write
using a pen; reduced writing speed; involuntary head movements which affect
the ability to read standard-sized print; and reduced ability to manipulate
resources in the learning environment. They may have difficulty turning
pages or using computers.
- Students may have frequent or unexpected absences from class owing to
hospitalisation or changes in their rehabilitation or treatment procedure.
Earlier periods of hospitalisation may have meant gaps in schooling.
- Students with a long-standing mobility disability may carry emotional
‘baggage’ as a result of previous labelling and put-downs. Confidence and
self-esteem may have been affected.
- Students with a mobility disability coming straight from the school system
may have been used to a structured and controlled learning environment, and
may be uncomfortable taking some of the learning risks associated with the
relatively free and unstructured environment of university.
- Students with a mobility impairment may be isolated in the learning
environment. The possibility for social contacts and for interaction with
other students is sometimes limited, and this isolation or separateness may
have an impact on learning.
Communicating with students with mobility disability
Interacting with students with a mobility disability should be characterised
by respect for their rights to dignity, confidentiality and equity. How well
academic staff are able to assist these students depends very much on the
relationship they are able to establish with the student.
The fact that students have a mobility disability may not always be
immediately apparent. Needs will vary, and difficulties may fluctuate. Some
students will choose to disclose their disability; others will not. At your
first lecture, you might invite any students who have a disability to
contact you for a confidential discussion of their specific learning needs.
In that discussion you might feel it is necessary to ask students to provide
documentation to verify their disability. In doing this, ensure that
students’ rights to privacy and confidentiality are recognised. You might
also ask students what, if any, information would need to be shared with
other members of staff, or with other students in the class. It is also
important to ask students if physical assistance (for example opening doors
or carrying books) is required.
- When communicating with students with a mobility disability it is important
to acknowledge that they are students first and foremost, not ‘victims’,
‘sufferers’ or ‘conditions’.
- Students using wheelchairs often complain of being patronised, and of being
spoken to as if they are deaf, or in some way ‘not quite there’, or mentally
deficient. Communicate just as you would with any other student.
- Do not lean on a student’s wheelchair or move it without seeking permission.
Consider the wheelchair as part of the student’s personal space.
- Ask students about any adaptive technology they may be using to access
information or to prepare assignments. It will always help to understand
just what is involved for a particular student in the preparation of their
- Negotiate about teaching and assessment issues on the basis of individual
need. You may like to consider negotiating individual study contracts which
allow students to meet your expectations in different ways which match their
preferred learning style. This ensures that the curriculum offered is
- Sometimes students may set unrealistically high standards for themselves,
and so you may need to help them focus on more realistic and achievable
standards and goals. This process will be assisted if your expectations are
clear. If you have negotiated any adaptation to teaching or assessment with
the student, it is good practice for both student and staff member to have a
written record of the decision arrived at.
Teaching a group of students which includes students with a mobility
- Students who use wheelchairs, callipers or crutches, or who tire easily, may
find it difficult moving about within the constraints of lecture timetables.
Absence or lateness may be a result of the distance between teaching venues,
so at the end of a lecture you may need to recap any information given at
- Academic activities which take place off-campus (such as industry visits,
interviews or fieldwork) may pose problems. Consider supplementary
laboratory practicals, films, or videos as options to field trips.
- Students with a mobility disability may sometimes wish to use their own
furniture, such as ergonomic chairs or sloped writing tables. Extra space
may need to be created in teaching rooms, but this should be done
unobtrusively. Some students with back problems may prefer to stand rather
- Some students may need to use a tape recorder or notetaker in lectures.
Extra time is involved in processing information acquired in this way. It is
common practice in some departments to routinely tape all lectures. This is
a practice which will assist a variety of students, including those who may
be absent from time to time because of their disability.
- Students may need extensions to deadlines for work involving locating and
using library resources. Provide reading lists well before the start of a
course so that reading can begin early.
- Social and academic isolation may be an issue for students who are unable to
participate in some class activities. One-to-one sessions with a tutor may
help fill this gap in participation.
Approaches to teaching which assist all students to learn include:
- Ensuring that students know what and
how they are expected to learn: that is, they are told, or they can
accurately work it out for themselves. This can be done by:
© previewing new topics and showing
how the new
material fits in with other parts of the subject
© making explicit what you expect
learn from a lecture or tutorial
© summarising the main points of a
making clear how that topic will be assessed.
- Integrating instructions on how to learn with content teaching.
- Designing the workload so that students have time to think, to reflect on
what they have learned, to see how it fits in with their previous learning
and experience, to work out what they don’t yet know but need to know next.
- Helping students see the relevance to their broader personal and vocational
goals of their learning in a particular situation. Provide opportunities for
students to relate what is taught in class to their experiences and values.
- Demonstrating your interest and enthusiasm for your subject. For example,
your students will better appreciate its intellectual challenge if you
relate your teaching to your research interests.
- Providing appropriate and adequate feedback on how students are progressing
with their learning, particularly on their achievement of learning goals.
- Assessing students’ learning in line with what they thought they had to
learn. Provide opportunities for students to learn how to deal with
assessment tasks before the final assessment.
Students may also learn best when:
- They have some choice about what they learn and how they learn, that is,
when teaching is student-centred. Where possible, provide short electives
within a subject and introduce a variety of learning tasks - project work,
problem-based activities, and resource-based activities.
- They can talk through the material with other students or with a tutor. You
might provide opportunities for structured group activities in your subject
so that students experience both individual and collaborative learning. Have
students research selected areas of a topic independently, but then
collaborate in small groups for the purposes of completing a report,
assignment or presentation on the topic. There are many benefits to be
gained from shared experiences in learning. Encourage the establishment of
student self-help, discussion or focus groups. Such groups could be
organised on the basis of existing tutorial or lab groups, but can also be
organised beneficially across years and levels. Students thus have
experience of a wider range of approaches and attitudes from which to draw
for their own learning.
- They can apply their learning in a practical or vocationally-relevant way.
Project work can take into account various career or further study options
available to students.
- They are able to move from the concrete to the abstract. In your
explanations, begin with examples or applications of theory to ‘real life’
situations, and then move to discussion of the more abstract issues.
Strategies for assessing students with a mobility disability
In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity, not a
guaranteed outcome, is the objective. You are not expected to lower
standards to accommodate students with a disability, but rather are required
to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.
Students with a mobility disability may need particular adjustments to
assessment tasks. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability
impacts on performance you can consider alternative assessment strategies.
- A reader or an oral examination (either presenting answers on tape or
participating in a viva) are alternatives to the conventional written paper.
An oral examination is not an easy option for students. Give the same time
for an oral examination as for a written exam, but allow extra time for the
student to listen to and refine or edit responses. In your assessment,
allowance should be made for the fact that spoken answers are likely to be
less coherent than written answers.
- For some students the combination of written and oral examination will be
most appropriate. Allow students to write answer plans or make outline
notes, but then to answer the question orally. Your assessment should be
based on both the notes and the spoken presentation.
- Students may need to use a personal computer or a personal assistant in an
examination. If so it may be necessary to provide extra space for equipment,
or a separate examination venue if the noise from equipment (for example a
voice synthesiser) is likely to be distracting for other students.
- Provide extra time in examinations for students who have reduced writing
speed. Some students with a mobility disability may need rest breaks.
Take-home examinations and split papers may be options, given that some
students may need double time to complete examinations.
- Allow extensions to assignment deadlines if extensive research involving
physical activity (for example, frequent trips to the library or collection
of data from dispersed locations) is required.
There are some good assessment practices which will help students with a
mobility disability (and all other students in the class!):
- Know what you are testing, whether it be decision-making, strategic
planning, creative application of information, data collection and
processing, logical sequencing, or argument, and develop assessment tasks
- Create assessment activities in which students have the opportunity to link
their learning to what they already know, and to past experience.
- Make your expectations clear so that students know what they are required to
- Keep written examination instructions and sentences within examination
questions short. Questions using bullet points, lists or separate parts are
more likely to be followed and correctly interpreted.
- Avoid using assessment methods which encourage students to rote learn
material. Open book examinations are one way of doing this. Students with
impaired hand or arm function will need assistance to turn pages, and
therefore extra time.
- Make explicit the way in which marks will be allocated, both in discussion
with the class beforehand, and on the examination paper.
- Provide optional pathways towards meeting stated objectives, options which
allow for flexibility in the approach to teaching, organisation and
assessment. You might provide project-based exercises in which students
choose their own topic for exploration. Given the diversity of students, the
greater the diversity in methods of assessment, the fairer the process. Make
accommodations based on individual circumstance and need. Remember that
students may need the opportunity to experiment to find the adaptation or
accommodation which best meets their learning style or needs.
- Include self-assessment as a component of the course. Self-assessment
involves discussion with students about the criteria according to which they
assess their own performance, and the level of performance required for
- Discuss and collaborate on assessment alternatives with staff who have had
previous experience teaching students with disabilities. Ensure that you
(and your department) regularly review any alternative arrangements to
ensure that these meet both the student’s needs (which may change over time)
and stated course objectives.