Chronic Health Conditions
Implications for Learning

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Chronic health conditions can cause ongoing difficulties such as fatigue and nausea, but can also become acute, significantly impairing a student’s work performance for a few hours or several days. Additionally, the use of medication frequently entails unpleasant side effects.

Students with chronic health conditions may experience symptoms such as difficulty concentrating or memorizing, changes in energy levels, or chronic pain. Since health conditions have different causes and can affect the neurological, circulatory, cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, or digestive systems, they require ongoing medical follow-up, and may have an impact on the student’s academic performance and attendance. Royster and Marshall (2008) note:

Although chronic illnesses encompass a wide range of symptoms and health conditions, they share an important characteristic: an unpredictable waxing and waning course of illness with recurring relapses and hospitalizations. Unlike more traditional and better understood disabilities that can be addressed by specific solutions, such as wheelchair access, hearing aids, or readers, chronic illnesses require ongoing flexible accommodations.

Students who experience chronic health conditions may also face prejudice and stigmatization. As with many disabilities, especially invisible ones, people may harbour unfair and negative attitudes about people with chronic illness, including assumptions that the individual is faking or exaggerating symptoms, or that they expect special treatment, take advantage of others, are lazy, or are simply weak. Bullick (2012) provides these tips for dealing with negative attitudes:

  1. Consider the person, not merely the symptoms and effects of the illness.
  2. Focus on what he/she can do rather than what he/she cannot do.
  3. Ask someone with a chronic condition if he/she can help you gain a better understanding of his/her illness.
  4. Make informed decisions rather than snap judgments. In today’s age of instant information, it’s easy to find facts and evidence about how chronic conditions affect those living with them.
  5. Be patient. For people living with chronic conditions, health becomes a big (and often time-consuming) priority, sometimes making it difficult to make and maintain friendships and relationships.
  6. Share your knowledge. As you learn more about chronic conditions, you can help correct the misconceptions others may have about it.
  7. Become a champion. When you lend your support to groups and organizations that represent people with chronic conditions, you are contributing to efforts to change attitudes and to finding treatments and cures.

Common Accommodations

The following accommodations and classroom adaptations are a list of suggested accommodations, but are not comprehensive or exhaustive, nor will all accommodations listed be necessary in all cases. Other accommodations may be implemented based on the individual needs of each student as recommended by your campus Disability Services Office or other professionals.

Common Characteristics of a Student with Chronic Health Conditions Commonly Suggested Accommodations/Classroom Adaptations
Student has difficulty taking notes due to fatigue, hand stiffness, or lack of concentration. Permit the use of assistive technology (e.g., computer, digital voice recorder).
Student experiences lack of concentration, ‘memory fog,’ severe pain, physical limitation, frequent absences, or other physical symptoms. Provide the support of a tutor, note taker, or lab assistant.
Allow extra time for assignments, tests and examinations.
Student experiences physical symptoms that require immediate or frequent interventions such as going to the washroom, getting a drink, or moving to relieve stiffness or pain. Allow breaks during classes to go to the washroom, drink water, and move around.
Student is easily fatigued or exhausted. Limit or space exams to avoid having too many on the same day or during the same week.
Student is easily distracted due to symptoms such as reduced concentration, pain, or other physical symptoms. Allow exams to be written in a separate room.
Student has reduced overall health and is unable to meet the usual deadlines for assignments, tests, and exams. Allow some flexibility in course schedules, tests, and exams. Perhaps suggest a reduced course load.