Teaching Students with Physical and Mobility Disabilities

  • Physical disabilities are broad in nature. A student may have a back problem that affects sitting or walking, have a chronic medical condition leading to physical problems, have small amputations such as fingers or toes, or have a disability that necessitates the use of a wheelchair for mobility and/or a personal assistant for care.

    Mobility disabilities are wide-ranging, occurring from a variety of causes including but not limited to back problems, chronic health issues, amputations, stature, and other causes. The effects range from affecting length or type of terrain a student can walk, to needing to use crutches or canes, to needing to use a wheel chair. In all cases, the tool to assist ambulation may be situational or permanent.

    Some examples of possible accommodations that a student with a physical or mobility disability may require include (but are not limited to):

    • “Dear Professor” memos verifying the need for accommodations
    • Priority/early course registration
    • Relocating a class or lab to a building or classroom that is accessible
    • Provision of an accessible table and/or seat in the classroom
    • Accommodated testing for in-class and online exams and quizzes
    • Note-taking services and/or the use of an audio recorder for class lectures
    • Allowance of laptops, tablets, or assistive technology in the classroom
    • Regular advising meetings with an assigned Department for Disability Access and Advising advisor

    When interacting with individuals with physical or mobility disabilities, follow these guidelines:

    • Allow for (occasional) tardiness in case of inclement weather.
    • Do not offer to hold a cane or crutches unless the individual requests.
    • When talking with a person who uses a wheelchair, sit down or kneel in order to place yourself at eye level if the conversation is more than a few minutes.
    • Don’t touch or push a person’s wheelchair or other equipment without asking for permission or if they need help first. Likewise, don’t put your hand on or learn on a wheelchair as this is invading the individual’s body space.
    • People are not confined to wheelchairs. Don’t assume that using a wheelchair is a tragedy—it is a means of transportation.
    • Individuals who use wheelchairs often transfer to automobiles and furniture; don’t move a wheelchair away if the user transfers out of the chair.
    • Some individuals with physical or mobility disabilities use a wheelchair only some of the time; however, this does not mean that they are "faking" a disability. It may be a means to conserve energy, to reduce pain, or to move about more quickly.
    • Do not speak loudly or slowly to a person who uses a wheelchair unless they need you to do so in order to communicate.
    • Don’t assume that a person needs help.

    The following are some considerations to keep in mind when working with students with physical disabilities or disabilities affecting mobility in the classroom:

    • Acquaint yourself with the location of the nearest accessible restroom and water fountain.
    • Ensure that there are adequate pathways to your classroom and within your classroom.
    • Theater type classrooms may present difficulties unless there are flat spaces in the front or rear of the room large enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
    • Ensure that there is space for a table. Tables are more accessible than standard desks, and should have an under-table clearance of at least 27½ inches. Let D2A2 know if a table is needed.
    • If possible, avoid relegating students with physical or mobility disabilities to a doorway, side aisle, or back of the room
    • Classes taught in a laboratory setting will usually require some modification of the workstation. Working directly with the student may be the best way to provide modifications to the workstation.
    • Identify if the student will transfer from wheelchair to desk and ensure that the chair is nearby for transportation in case of an emergency.
    • For fieldwork or field trips, assess the site for type of terrain and slope, and availability of ramps, accessible rest rooms and parking.

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    Additional Resources

    Mobility Impairments (DO-IT, University of Washington)

    Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities (Accessible Campus, Council of Ontario Universities)

    Physical Disability (Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training)

    Students who have Mobility or Dexterity Limitations (Allegheny College)