An Educator's Guide to Teaching Students With Physical Disabilities
written by: Stephanie Torreno
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 5/28/2015
To maintain inclusive classrooms, teachers should have knowledge of physical impairments, assistive technology, teaching strategies, and necessary accommodations and modifications. Use this guide as your source.
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Children with physical disabilities, once taught in separate classes and even separate schools, now learn beside their peers in regular classrooms. Inclusion has changed how these students are educated, with the continuing development of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensuring rights to a quality education.
As types of physical disabilities vary in degree of impairment, teachers will find a general knowledge of various conditions and how they affect children helpful. Assistive technology can level the effects of these impairments by allowing students to participate in classroom activities more easily and independently. Specific classroom and instructional strategies, as well as accommodations and modifications, also assist students in achieving their best individual educational outcomes. Explore the following articles to learn how all of these factors come together for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities in today’s classroom.
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The Practice of Inclusion
With the development and reauthorization of education laws, such as IDEA, inclusion has become the typical practice in educating students with many types of disabilities. Unlike mainstreaming, inclusion offers students support services to assist with functioning in the general classroom. In an inclusive classroom, general educators set the tone to create an accepting learning environment that can benefit all students.
The term "physical disabilities" encompasses a wide range of congenital and acquired conditions and impairments. While students with varying diagnoses and severities benefit from physical, occupational and speech therapies, each child has differing abilities and requires individualized supports. Some conditions, such as muscular dystrophy, are progressive, but those such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy can improve with treatment.
Any device or tool that enables a student to participate in learning activities can be called assistive technology. Simple pencil grips or ergonomically designed pens can make holding and manipulating writing instruments easier. Oversized art supplies and handmade adaptations can allow students with fine motor difficulties to create art.
For those with more severe impairments, assistive technology lets students have access to computers for learning and expressing themselves. Keyboard and mouse alternatives replace standard input devices. Voice recognition software allows users to speak what they want to input instead of typing it.
Teachers can significantly improve educational outcomes of students with physical disabilities by implementing specific strategies. Classroom arrangement with easy access to supplies can prevent accidents and improve participation in activities. Using a buddy system or working with paraprofessionals can provide students with necessary assistance to complete assignments. Finally, individual accommodations and encouragement can promote learning and ease frustrations over physical difficulties.
Since each student differs in degrees of impairment and ability, accommodations and modifications must be individualized according to needs. Although some subjects are more difficult to accommodate and modify for certain disabilities, many options make learning more accessible. Accommodations can include notetakers, the use of scribes for written assignments, handouts in alternative formats, and separate rooms for testing. A teacher’s creativity also opens new opportunities to learn.
Physical disabilities should not exclude students from participating in gym activities. Depending on a student’s disability, a separate, adaptive class or modifications within a typical gym class both offer physical education. Basketball, golfing and tennis can be adapted or participated in with the assistance of a physical education teacher or aide. Other physical activities, even swimming, can provide great therapeutic benefits to students.
To make inclusion work, general classroom teachers, support specialists, parents and students themselves must work together to create the best educational environment possible. With knowledge of inclusive practices and strategies, teachers can manage classrooms that encourage learning and discovery among all students, regardless of physical abilities.
Have you had a physically disabled student who made educational strides in your classroom? Did you implement a unique accommodation to give a student better access to an educational experience? Use these resources and you can make a real difference in your students' lives. Leave a comment and share your best inclusive practices with other readers.