Physical Disabilities

What Are Physical Disabilities?
The term physical disabilities is broad and covers a range of disabilities and health issues, including both congenital and acquired disabilities. Within that range are physical disabilities or impairments that interfere with a child’s ability to attain the same developmental milestones as his or her age-mates. The number of students with physical disabilities is expected to grow as medical advances continue to reduce mortality rates for infants and children.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a person with an orthopedic impairment, brain injury, or other health impairment who, by reason of that impairment, needs special education and related services is considered to have a physical disability. The condition must interfere with or substantially limit the child’s ability to take part in routine school activities. A physical disability or health condition need not limit activity; instead, it may involve other restrictions, such as a special diet (i.e. celiac-disease) or the student’s need to use medical equipment.

Physical disabilities and health conditions are classified as either congenital or acquired. Students with congenital conditions either are born with physical difficulties or develop them soon after birth. Acquired disabilities are those developed through injury or disease while the child is developing normally. The age at which a condition develops often determines its impact on the child.

Some common examples of physical disabilities include Traumatic brain injury (TBI), Spinal-cord injury, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, neural tube defects, muscular dystrophy (MD), Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), and Cystic fibrosis. Other forms of physical disabilities can vary from hydrocephalus to cleft palate, from asthma to AIDS. Since physical disabilities covers such a broad range of disabilities and health issues, teachers must gather information about each child in the classroom and their particular conditions.

Self-Image is Important
For students with physical handicaps, self-image is extremely important. Teachers need to ensure that the child's self image is positive. Physically handicapped students are aware of the fact that they are physically different than most others and that there are certain things they cannot do. Peers can be cruel to other children with physical handicaps and become involved in teasing, casting insulting remarks and excluding physically disabled children form games and group type activities. Physically disabled children want to succeed and participate as much as they can and this needs to be encouraged and fostered by the teacher. The focus needs to be on what the child CAN do, not can't do.

Instructional Adaptations for Students with Physical Impairments
A physical disability may or may not affect a child's academic performance. Therefore, although you might need not need to make curriculum adaptations for such a student, you may need to modify performance requirements or implement adaptations to allow the student access to instructional materials. Children who often miss school because of their medical conditions may require adjustments to the pace of instruction or to the amount of information they must learn.

Students with physical disabilities often need special professional services outside the classroom. Orientation and mobility specialists can assist the student in using a wheelchair. Occupational therapists can teach daily living activities such as dressing, and physical therapists can help with walking or keyboarding skills. Doctors and nurses may be involved in this student's life to help with mediation and pain management.

As a classroom teach of a physically impaired student you must stay informed on three points:
  • warning signs that the student needs help or is having a problem
  • the student's limitations and their influence on defining reasonable expectations, and
  • how to handle an emergency brought on by the student's conditions.

Take the time to learn as much as you can about the child's condition while keeping in mind that the student is an individual, not a health condition. You shouldn't be afraid to talk to the student about what works or doesn't work for him or her, but seek first an understanding of the student as a person. Medical and therapeutic specialists can provide insight into classroom modifications that will ensure the greatest opportunity for success.

After a national survey in the US, it seems as through most kids who are physically disabled that take part in a physical activity or sport, take up swimming. Children with physical disabilities can float and therefore have more confidence in the water. Many places offer swimming to the disabled and many of these children can learn how to swim.

Accessibilty in the Classroom and Elsewhere
Accommodating a student with a physical disability requires you to carefully examine your classroom in order to make everything accessible. This might mean lowering the pencil sharpener or arranging furniture to make aisles easy to navigate in a wheelchair. If you consider all of your students in terms of their range of motor skills, you will begin to think beyond the group labeled "physically disabled." You will see students with of range of, say, physical coordination or artistic skill, and you will design lessons that offer alternatives to kinesthetic learning or to demonstrations of learning that require fine motor skills.

One of your greatest challenges will be to ensure that the student with a physical disability is comfortable in all the learning situations to which your class is exposed. For example, when planning a field trip, you need to confirm that the location is wheelchair accessible, that it has parking nearby, and that the entire class can participate in the activities. Most museums and sites of interest are accessible to students with physical limitations, but always confirm access. It can be stressful to everyone, including you, to discover on the spot that a location or activity is inaccessible.

Classroom Strategies
Some strategies to help incorporate a physically disabled student into your classroom may include:
  • setting up a buddy system so that another student can take notes for the student with a physical disability and assist him/her with other in-class requirements
  • arrange the room so that everyone can move around easily
  • have students with difficulty speaking use an alternative presentation format in place of oral reporting
  • make sure all activities include all students
  • be flexible and accept suggestions
  • talk to the student about what he/she likes to do and can do
  • identify a student's areas of expertise... out of necessity, for example, the student may have become extremely proficient with the computer, and perhaps he/she can share that knowledge with the class
  • incorporate into lessons and/or wall hanging examples of role models with physical disablities


Society for Manitobans with Disabilities
825 Sherbrook St
Winnipeg, MB R3A 1M5
(204) 975-3010

Independent Living Resource Centre
311A – 393 Portage Ave.
Winnipeg, MB R3B 3H6
(204) 947-0194

Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities
105 – 500 Portage Ave.
Winnipeg, MB R3C 3X1
(204) 943-6099

Belson, S. (2003). Integrating Technology for Meaningful Learning. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

Frey, G., and Hutchins Pirnot, K. (2008). As I Am: A True Story of Adaptation to Physical Disabilities. Sarasota, FL: Peppertree Press.

Heller, K., Forney, P., Alberto, P, Best, S and Schwartzman, M. (2008). Understanding Physical, Health, and Multiple Disabilities (Second edition). New York, NY:

Pierangelo, R. (2004). A Special Educator's Survival Guide. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass.

Stowe, C.(2005). Understanding Special Education: A Helpful Handbook for Classroom Teachers. Bethesda, MD: Teaching Strategies

Websites to access: