View high contrast
Toggle menu
Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training

Physical Disability

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 and 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 education following vehicle or sporting accidents in which they have sustained some degree of brain injury. Resulting impairment may affect speech, vision or 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 educational 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 a 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 that 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 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 fewer opportunities for interaction with other students.  Feelings of separateness in the learning environment may have an impact on learning.

Teaching Strategies

There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with physical impairment.

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. 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. Below are some further suggestions:

  • 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 the beginning.
  • Check that academic activities which take place off-campus (such as industry visits, interviews or fieldwork) are accessible to people with a mobility disability. Consider supplementary laboratory practicals, films or videos as alternative 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 in lectures or classes, rather than sit.
  • Some students may need to use a tape recorder or note-taker 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.
  • 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.

Assessment Strategies

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, such as those suggested below:

  • 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 (e.g. 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 (e.g. frequent trips to the library or collection of data from dispersed locations) is required.