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Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training
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Physical Disability

Students’ physical activity and 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 one side. 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.

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 use wheelchairs to enhance their mobility whilst others will walk with the aid of callipers, crutches or walking stick.  Some students may experience chronic fatigue; for others there will be extreme fluctuations of energy from day to day.

Physical 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 and coordination, and the injury may also be responsible for personality disorders or depression.

In providing accommodations for students with physical disabilities we need to remember that some 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 environment in the same way. Each learner with a physical disability should be assessed individually and accommodations should be implemented based on the unique needs of each student.

Impact of physical disability

The impact of physical disability on learning will vary but for most students the issues of most significance relate to physical access, manipulation of equipment (e.g. in a laboratory), access to computers, participation in field trips 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, such as: 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  standard 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 have experienced gaps in their schooling due to periods of hospitalisation. This may have affected their confidence in learning.
  • Students with a mobility impairment may have less opportunities for interaction with other students. Feelings of separateness in the learning environment may have an impact on learning.

Disability Practitioner Strategies

There are a range of services and equipment that are commonly facilitated by Disability Practitioners as reasonable adjustments for students with physical disability.  

These include:

  • The provision of recorded lectures or a notetaker.
  • Access to peer lecture notes
  • Access to Student Access Study Centre
  • Arranging the specific scheduling of tutorial allocations
  • Informing Academic staff that students may at times be accompanied by support persons
  • Access to Assistive Technology, such as speech recognition software
  • Access to Assistive Technology or scribe in examinations
  • Examination timetable to allow for adequate time between exams and are scheduled for times that maximise student’s energy levels due to physical disability, that is morning or afternoon exams
  • Provision of a Practical Assistant within laboratories or practicals
  • Provision of alternative arrangements if required to manipulate or lift items heavier than  5kg
  • Provision of required reading in electronic formats
  • Arranging Ergonomic chairs and tables in classrooms and lecture theatres
  • Provision of extra time to complete required practical assessments or tasks
  • Arrangement for student to meet with faculty to identify strategies for accommodating the implications of the disability in relation to the inherent requirements of any required practicums
  • Provision for moving around in class and examinations, for example stretching, lying on floor
  • Provision for additional toilet breaks during examinations
  • Provision of ergonomic equipment in examinations
  • Provision of aides, such as document holder, foot rest, lumbar support or pillow in examinations
As a disability practitioner it may be helpful to be aware of inclusive teaching and assessment strategies that can assist all students. ADCET has identified some specific strategies that may be useful for students with a physical disability Physical disability Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Strategies