Physical Disabilities

PART 4 - Physical Disabilities

Mobility Impairments and Dexterity Limitations

◊ Overview ◊

◊ Interactions with Students ◊

◊ Service Dogs ◊

◊ Classroom Considerations - Mobility ◊

◊ Classroom Considerations - Dexterity ◊



A wide range of neuromuscular and orthopedic impairments causes difficulties with movement and fine-motor activity. These can be congenital, the result of illness, or accident related. Some conditions are stable; others are progressive. In some conditions, limitations are constant; in others, flare-ups increase limitations intermittently. Impairments can be painful. They can affect mobility, strength, speed, endurance, or coordination. Because there is such a range of causes and consequences, accommodations must be made on an individual basis.

Some students have difficulties walking and use a mobility aid, such as a cane, crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair. Some impairments cause paralysis. Fatigue can be a significant factor for students with mobility limitations. Although it is often assumed that people are “confined” to wheelchairs, many students can walk but use wheelchairs to conserve energy or to move about more quickly. Others can stand but cannot walk. Physical access to classrooms, offices, and restrooms is always a concern for persons with mobility impairments, especially for wheelchair users.

Sometimes upper extremity limitations, which involve the use of the hands or arms, accompany mobility limitations. These can be caused by disorders such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis, or they can have congenital causes such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. They can also be the result of illnesses, accidents, strokes, which usually affect one side of the body, or injury to the upper spinal cord, which limits the use of the arms and hands. Such dexterity limitations can impact the individual’s ability to reach and manipulate. Specialized equipment such as hand splints sometimes increase fine-motor ability.

Some students have dexterity limitations that are the result of repetitive strain injury. These chronic conditions cause pain and reduce agility in, and tolerance for, fine-motor movements.

They can fluctuate in severity and are susceptible to aggravation from overuse. The students themselves may underestimate the seriousness of these invisible disabilities. The impact of the condition can be better appreciated when one considers the many fine-motor tasks required in college, such as writing class notes, taking essays and tests, doing homework, and using computers.

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Interactions with Students


Offer Assistance

Offer assistance if you wish or if the situation looks like it might be warranted. Then wait until help is accepted before giving it. Offering assistance is polite, but helping before it’s accepted is not, and could even be dangerous. If you’re unsure of how to help, ask.


Respect Personal Space

Avoid holding onto a person’s wheelchair or moving the person without consent. A wheelchair is part of a person’s body space, and it’s intrusive to hold it or lean on it.


Create Comfort in Communication

Communicate directly to a person with a disability, not to a companion or third person. If practical, sit down to communicate at eye level with a wheelchair user, especially if the conversation lasts more than a few minutes.


Use Ordinary Vocabulary

Don’t be oversensitive about using ordinary vocabulary like “run,” “walk,” “dance,” or “trip” when referring to a person with mobility impairments. It places an unnecessary emphasis on the person’s limitations to censor your language or apologize.


Disability is Part of Reality

Acknowledge disability in a straightforward way. Ignoring the disability is unnatural, and in fact, can emphasize it. On the other hand, asking personal questions is inappropriate, as is dwelling on the disability. Questions about how a person will accomplish a particular task may be necessary. It’s preferable to ask for information rather than to operate on assumptions.

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Understanding the Role of Services Dogs

See Board Policy and Information on Service Dogs in Part 2 of this GUIDE

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Classroom Strategies for Students with Mobility Impairments

  • Although most classrooms have adequate access, students may need to enter through a special door, use an elevator, or take a circuitous route. Check to see if the student needs assistance. If a classroom presents an access barrier, the student should report it to DSPS as soon as possible for a remedy to be initiated.
  • If existing seating is unsuitable, students can request that tables or chairs be moved into the classroom and reserved for their use. In labs, it is preferable to include tables with adjustable heights and to keep equipment within easy reach.
  • In the lab, some students require adapted materials or help with handling tools, lab equipment, or chemicals. An assistant or lab partner may be needed to function as the student’s hands or legs. Group projects can be one way to enable all students to contribute. Safety considerations should be clearly understood and adhered to.
  • When planning off-campus events, consider accessibility, and solicit input from the student.

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Classroom Strategies for Students with Dexterity Limitations

  • In order to reduce carrying weight, a student might remove a textbook’s binding. Explain which materials are required in class so the student can bring only what is necessary.
  • Allow flexibility in meeting deadlines for assignments, especially if the student has a flare-up of symptoms or uses an assistant for fine-motor tasks.
  • Reduce the quantity of work, or substitute activities when necessary. Assign a representative sample—only enough problems or work to consolidate or demonstrate learning—and eliminate repetitions.
  • Students may require extra time for long written assignments and tests or may need scribe services to help with Scantron sheets.  Students may also use computer equipment, including voice-activated programs.
  • Recruit a volunteer note-taker if the student requests help with notes. A student may also choose to record classroom lectures.

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Last Updated: 6/13/17