Mobility and Health Impairments

Used with permission from DO IT
Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology
University of Washington

Mobility impairments

There are many types of orthopedic or neuromuscular impairments that can impact mobility. These include but are not limited to amputation, paralysis, cerebral palsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis and spinal cord injury. Mobility impairments range from lower body impairments, which may require use of canes, walkers, or wheelchairs, to upper body impairments which may include limited or no use of the upper extremities and hands. It is impossible to generalize about the functional abilities of students with mobility impairments due to the wide variety of types disabilities and specific diagnoses.

Mobility impairments can be permanent or temporary. A broken bone or surgical procedure can temporarily impact a student's ability to walk independently and travel between classroom buildings in a timely manner. Likewise, some students may be ambulatory with a walker for short distances within a classroom, but may need a wheelchair or scooter for longer distances.

Mobility impairments can impact students in several ways. Some students may take longer to get from one class to another, enter buildings, or maneuver in small spaces. In some cases physical barriers may inhibit entry into a building or classroom. Accessible transportation is also required for students to get to fieldwork sites.

A mobility impairment may impact, to varying degrees, a student's ability to manipulate objects, turn pages, write with a pen or pencil, type at a keyboard, and/or retrieve research materials. Medical conditions such as Arthritis or repetitive stress injuries can impact fine motor abilities and decrease endurance for longer assignments. A student's physical abilities may also vary from day to day.

Examples of accommodations for students with mobility impairments include:

  • Accessible locations for classrooms, labs, and field trips.
  • Wide aisles and uncluttered work areas.
  • Adjustable height and tilt tables.
  • All equipment located within reach.
  • Notetakes, scribes, and lab assistants
  • Group lab assignments. 
  • Extended exam time or alternative testing arrangements.
  • Computers with speech input and/or alternative keyboards.  
  • Access to handicapped parking spaces, wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, restrooms, and elevators.
  • Course materials available in electronic format.
  • When speaking with a student in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, sit down or move back to create a more comfortable angle for conversation.

Accommodation needs of students with mobility impairments vary greatly by individual and by academic activity.

Health impairments

There are a range of medical diagnoses and subsequent health problems that can have a temporary or chronic impact on a student's academic performance. Common diagnoses include arthritis, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Asthma, AIDS, and heart disease. Unless the condition is neurological in nature, health impairments are not likely to directly affect learning. However, the secondary effects of illness and the side effects of medications can have a significant impact on memory, attention, strength, endurance, and energy levels.

Health impairments can result in a range of academic challenges for a student. Problems may include missing class for unpredictable and prolonged time periods and difficulties attending classes full-time or on a daily basis. Health problems may also interfere with the physical skills needed to complete laboratory, computer, or writing assignments. Individuals with arthritis, for example, may have difficulty writing due to pain or joint deformities, making it a challenge for them to meet the writing requirements for some classes. Students with Multiple Sclerosis may not be able to manipulate small laboratory equipment or complete tasks that require precise measuring, graphing, or drawing. Prolonged sitting may pose challenges for an individual with chronic pain or back problems. Illness or injury may result in limitations in mobility which require the need to use a wheelchair or scooter for mobility. Some students must avoid specific activities that trigger their conditions. For example, a student with asthma may need to avoid specific inhalants in a lab.

Instructor flexibility plays a key role in supporting the success of students with health impairments as many health conditions by nature are unpredictable. The provision of course outlines with clear and well organized information regarding readings, materials, assignments, and exams can help the student plan, organize, and prioritize his course requirements. Posting information on the Web is another way for a student to acquire important information without the need to be physically present in class. Prior knowledge of deadlines and exams may help the student plan doctor appointments and/or medical procedures around important class dates.

Computer-based instruction, distance learning, and other options that minimize travel and classroom-based instruction provide feasible alternatives for students with illnesses that make regular class attendance difficult.

Examples of typical accommodations for students who have health impairments include:

  • Notetakers and notetaking services.
  • Audio or video taped class sessions.
  • Flexible attendance requirements.
  • Extended exam time or alternative testing arrangements.
  • Assignments available in electronic format.
  • The use of electronic mail for instructor-student meetings and discussion groups for class discussions.
  • Web page or electronic mail distribution of course materials and lecture notes.
  • An environment which minimizes fatigue and injury.  
  • An ergonomic workstation  
  • Speech recognition computer input devices, ergonomic keyboards, one-handed keyboards, expanded keyboards, or miniature keyboards.

When health conditions result in permanent or temporary mobility problems, accommodations for students with mobility impairments may be appropriate.