Mobility Impairments

Mobility impairments range in severity from limitations of stamina to paralysis. Some mobility impairments are caused by conditions present at birth while others are the result of illness or physical injury.

Types Caused by Spinal Cord Injury

Injuries to the spinal cord cause different types of mobility impairments, depending on the areas of the spine affected. Quadriplegia refers to the loss of function to arms, legs, and trunk. Students with quadriplegia have limited or no use of their arms and hands and often use motorized wheelchairs. Paraplegia refers to the loss of function to the lower extremities and the lower trunk. Students with paraplegia typically use a manual wheelchair and have full movement of arms and hands.

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Other Causes

Below are brief descriptions of other causes of mobility impairments.

  • Amputation is the removal of one or more limbs, sometimes caused by trauma, malignancies or other conditions.
  • Arthritis is the inflammation of the body's joints, causing pain, swelling and difficulty with mobility.
  • Back disorders can limit a student's ability to sit, stand, walk, bend, or carry objects. They include, but are not limited to, degenerative disk disease, scoliosis, and herniated disks.
  • Cerebral palsy is the result of damage to the brain prior to or shortly after birth. It can prevent or inhibit walking, and cause a lack of muscle coordination, spasms, and speech difficulty.
  • Neuromuscular disorders include a variety of conditions, such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and ataxia, which result in degeneration and atrophy of muscle or nerve tissues.
  • Fibromyalgia is a form of "soft tissue" or muscular rheumatism causing constant pain in muscles and ligaments. Inactivity, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and sleep loss are common.

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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. Character traits (e.g., courageous or manipulative) should not be assumed 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 instruction 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 student with a disability to speak or act.
  • Allow the student to set the pace of walking or talking. A wheelchair should be viewed as a personal-assistance device rather than something to which one is "confined." It is also a part of a student's personal space; do not lean on or touch the chair.
  • Mobility impairments vary over a wide range, from temporary (e.g., a broken arm) to permanent (e.g., a form of paralysis or muscle degeneration). Other impairments, such as respiratory conditions, may affect coordination and endurance. These can also affect a student's ability to participate/perform in class.
  • Physical access to a class is the first barrier a student with a mobility impairment may face, but it is not the only accessibility concern. An unshoveled sidewalk, lack of reliable transportation, or mechanical problems with a wheelchair can easily cause a student to be late or absent.
  • Common accommodations for students with mobility impairments include: priority registration; notetakers; accessible classroom, location, and furniture; alternative ways of completing assignments; lab or library assistants; assistive computer technology; conveniently located parking; and time extensions for assignments and exams.

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Instructional Strategies

  • Invite students to self-identify on the first day of class by making a public statement such as: "Please contact me to request disability accommodations."
  • Include a disability access statement in the course syllabus such as: "To obtain disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES, you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603, or e-mail"
  • If necessary, arrange for a room change to an accessible classroom before the term begins.
  • If possible, try not to seat wheelchair users in the back row. Move a desk or rearrange seating at a table so the student is part of the regular classroom seating.
  • Height of tables should permit wheelchair access. Adjustable accessible tables can be requested.
  • Make field trip arrangements early and ensure that accommodations will be in place on the given day (e.g., transportation, site accessibility).
  • Make sure accommodations are in place for in-class written work (e.g., allowing the student to use a scribe, to use assistive computer technology, or to complete the assignment outside of class).
  • Be flexible with deadlines. Assignments that require library work or access to sites off-campus will consume more time for a student with a mobility impairment. Students with chronic and medicated pain may need extended time or additional explanations of material covered in class or pending assignments.
  • When in doubt about how to assist the student, ask him or her as privately as possible without drawing attention to the student or the disability.
  • Allow the student the anonymity afforded other students (e.g., avoid pointing out the student or the alternative arrangements to the rest of the class).

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