Creating a Learning Environment for Students with Severe Disabilities

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Students with severe disabilities have a combination of a physical disability and cognitive disability. Creating learning environment for students with severe disabilities requires the utilization of things such as assistive technology and alternative ways to accomplish physical tasks. For a student with severe disabilities, the way the environment is organized can be the difference between independence and having to rely on someone else. Choosing the right learning environment, proper placement of equipment and materials and the use of assistive devices can give a student the best chance to reach their educational goals and reach their highest quality of life.

Real Life Situations

Part of teaching students with severe disabilities is using real life situations. Therefore, when creating a learning environment for students with severe disabilities it is important to take this into consideration. Because generalizing skills to different situations can sometimes be difficult, it is important for students to focus their time on learning skills in the most realistic situations to encourage successful mastery. The utilization of false situations are likely to result in a lack of understanding when the real situation comes up and therefore can result in a waste of time. For example, a student that is able to push an item off of their wheelchair tray in a classroom might have difficulty doing the same task to push a piece of clothing into a washing machine.


The ability to make a snack independently or with minimal help can improve a student with severe disabilities’ quality of life. By setting up the environment, which in this case would be the kitchen, to make it possible for the student to complete the task, you are allowing them to meet one of his or her most basic needs. The following is an example of how a student who utilizes switches to activate appliances can make instant pudding for a snack.

1. Allow the student to choose the flavor. Have him reach for what he would like or place the objects in his line of vision so he may look at the one he would like to prepare. If the student is able, he could also choose what he would like by using a photo album or written menu that is placed in front of the cabinet.

2. Opening the package of pudding can be done by using a switch to activate a pair of electric scissors. The dried mix will then be poured into a blender that is placed on the student’s tray or at a table where they are able to see it.

3. Getting the necessary ingredients will likely require help. In order to make sure the student understand what is needed, two options can be shown and he will be requested to look or reach for the correct one. In this case, a measuring glass of milk and a measuring glass of juice could be shown. Once the correct item is chosen he can pour or assist in pouring the milk into a blender placed on his tray.

4. Using a switch, the student will activate the blender causing the ingredients to mix. It can then be scooped into a bowl and the student will be able to eat it.

Things to Consider

When determining where to teach a skill, it is important to think about a variety of things. First, special needs of the student with severe disabilities should be taken into consideration. Some students are sensitive to certain lighting or levels of noise. Although these things cannot always be controlled, when possible, it can make the learning environment more positive and therefore more successful. Equipment should be made as accessible as possible and adaptations should be made to encourage independence. An example of this would be to use puffy paint around flat buttons on the dishwasher. This can allow a student with issues with hand and eye coordination to hit the correct button easier. Finally, whenever possible, give the student a choice. If the student is working on a goal that she chose, then she will be more motivated to succeed.