Impairments result from injury, illness or genetic disorders. Many people have more than one impairment which can be variously disabling depending on the provisions that society makes for the person's inclusion. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may have no difficulties negotiating a well designed, accessible building but could be completely disabled in the adjacent building which is poorly designed.
Understanding the implications of a person's impairment is more useful than knowing what a person’s disability "label" is. Looking at the implications is the first step in providing suitable accommodations to ensure that approaches to teaching and support are as inclusive as possible. Following are brief descriptions of some major impairment groups.
There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific tips that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with particular disabilities.
Blindness or vision impairment
It is estimated that there are about 300,000 Australians who are blind or have some kind of vision impairment. While some people have a total absence of vision, approximately ninety percent of people classified as legally blind have some useable vision. Access requirements of people with vision impairments will therefore vary widely. Vision impairment or blindness can affect:
- Ability to read printed material or diagrams
- Sensitivity to light or screen glare - TV & Video Conference
- Mobility and orientation
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Blind or Vision Impaired Students
Deafness or Hearing Impairment
It is estimated that there are approximately 30,000 deaf people in Australia who have no useable hearing and whose first language is Auslan (Australian Sign Language). In addition it is believed that between one and three million Australians have varying degrees of hearing impairment but use mainly oral communication. Hearing impairment or deafness may involve:
- Using sign language
- English as a second language
- Limited aural access to information
- Use of lip reading for oral communication
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Deaf or Hearing Impaired Students
Disabilities labelled as psychiatric or psychological may include schizophrenia, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, and anxiety disorders. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common psychological disabilities evident in the university environment. Mental illness (or associated medications) can affect:
- Cognitive processing
- Exam anxiety
- Capacity to socialise
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with Mental Illness
Learning disability is the result of neurological disorder which may cause the learner to receive and process some information inaccurately. The most common learning disability found in the tertiary environment is dyslexia. Other learning disabilities are dysgraphia and aphasia. Research indicates that at least 5% of tertiary level students have a learning disability which can cause significant difficulties in perceiving and/or processing auditory, visual or spatial information. Learning disabilities can affect:
- Auditory-visual processing
- Phonological processing
- Short-term or working memory
- Ability to easily read or write text leading to technical errors in punctuation, capitalisation, grammar etc
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities
Conditions that result in physical disabilities include spinal cord injury, arthritis, cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis and a number of other conditions of the muscular, nervous and respiratory systems. These conditions tend to result in some degree of restricted activity in mobility and manipulation, such as restricted arm and hand movements and communication. Physical disability or mobility impairment may result in:
- Limited mobility and access to facilities
- Ability to manipulate or lift objects
- Acute or chronic pain
- Restricted ability to write or type
- Inability to sit for extended periods
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with Physical Impairments
A wide range of medical conditions may impact on students’ learning and their ability to attend lectures and tutorials, complete assignments by due dates or be assessed in the usual ways. These conditions include epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, kidney disorders, cystic fibrosis, cancer, hepatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and HIV/AIDS. While some of these conditions are lifelong, others such as CFS may last for periods ranging from a few months to several years.
A chronic health condition may result in:
- Allergic reactions
- Chronic fatigue
- Periods of fatigue
- Sensitivity to chemicals
- Increased need to use the toilet
- Difficulty sitting still for long periods
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with Health Conditions
Asperger syndrome and Autism
Asperger syndrome is an autistic spectrum disorder caused by a neurological dysfunction which particularly impacts on social functioning. As this is so intrinsic to the way that most teaching and learning takes place, students with autism or Asperger syndrome may find the experience of higher education daunting despite having the intellectual capacity to study at this level. However, many students have successfully completed a range of subjects including, most commonly, mathematics and computing.
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with Aspergers' or Autism
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is considered a neurological disorder. Research has indicated that ADHD is likely to be caused by biological factors that influence chemical messages (neurotransmitters) in certain parts of the brain. Slight imbalances in the neurotransmitters affect the parts of the brain which control reflective thought and the inhibition of ill-considered behaviour.
Adjustments in the learning environment can greatly assist a student with AD/HD, but as the nature of the student’s disability and its impact on learning will vary significantly adjustments need to be tailored to meet the individual's needs.
See Teaching and Assessment Strategies for Students with AD/HD
The term 'intellectual disability' refers to a group of conditions caused by various genetic disorders and infections. These conditions result in a limitation or slowness in an individual's general ability to learn and difficulties in communicating and retaining information. As with all disability groups, there are many types of intellectual disability with varying degrees of severity.