Mobility and Physical Disabilities Overview

Mobility and physical impairments range in severity from limitations on stamina to paralysis. Some mobility impairments are caused by conditions present at birth while others are the result of illness or physical injury. Injuries cause different types of mobility impairments depending on what area of the spine is affected.


Quadriplegia, paralysis of the extremities and trunk, is caused by a neck injury. Students with quadriplegia have limited or no use of their arms and hands and often use electric wheelchairs.


Paraplegia, paralysis of the lower extremities and the lower trunk, is caused by an injury to the mid-back. Students often use a manual wheelchair and have full movement of arms and hands. Below are brief descriptions of other causes of mobility impairments.


Amputation is the removal of one or more limbs, sometimes caused by trauma or another condition.


Arthritis is the inflammation of the body's joints, causing pain, swelling, and difficulty in body movement.

Back disorders

Back disorders include—but are not limited to—degenerative disk disease, scoliosis, and herniated disks.  Such conditions can limit a student's ability to sit, stand, walk, bend, or carry objects.

Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is the result of damage to the brain prior to or shortly after birth.  It can prevent or inhibit walking and cause spasms, speech difficulty, and a lack of muscle coordination.

Neuromuscular disorders

Neuromuscular disorders include a variety of disorders, such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and ataxia, that result in degeneration and atrophy of muscle or nerve tissues.

Some considerations:

  • Many students with mobility impairments lead lives similar to those without impairments. Dependency and helplessness are not characteristics of physical disability.
  • A physical disability is often separate from matters of cognition and general health; it does not imply that a student has other health problems or difficulty with intellectual functioning.
  • People adjust to disabilities in a myriad of ways; students should not be assumed to be brave and courageous on the basis of disability.
  • When talking with a wheelchair user, attempt to converse at eye level as opposed to standing and looking down. If a student has a communication impairment as well as a mobility impairment, take time to understand the person. Repeat what you understand, and when you don't understand, say so.
  • A student with a physical disability may or may not want assistance in a particular situation. Ask before giving assistance, and wait for a response. Listen to any instructions the student may give; by virtue of experience, the student likely knows the safest and most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand.
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take a disabled student to speak or act. Allow the student to set the pace walking or talking.
  • A wheelchair should be viewed as a personal-assistance device rather than something one is "confined to." It is also part of a student's personal space; do not lean on or touch the chair, and do not push the chair unless asked.
  • Mobility impairments vary over a wide range from temporary (e.g., a broken arm) to permanent (e.g., a form of paralysis). Other conditions, such as respiratory conditions, affect coordination and endurance; these can also affect a student's ability to perform in class.
  • Physical access to a classroom may not be the first barrier a student with a mobility impairment encounters on campus. A temporary construction project on a pathway, a lack of reliable transportation, or mechanical problems with a wheelchair can significantly impact a student 's experience.
  • Common accommodations for students with mobility impairments include priority registration, notetakers, accessible classroom/location/furniture, alternative ways of completing assignments, lab or library assistants, adaptive computer technology, exam accommodations and conveniently located parking.