Physical Disabilities

A mixed group of 3 wheelchair basketball players in a gym, making a play for a basketball floating in the air, while a fourth person, standing, is looking on.

Learning Objectives

This module will help you to:

  1. Explain the effects of physical disabilities on learning in the classroom.
  2. Understand the types of accommodations or other support that can help meet the educational needs of students with physical disabilities.
  3. Know how to support students with physical disabilities.


According to the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission (2011), physical disability is defined as:

Any degree of disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement of a physical nature caused by bodily injury, illness or birth defect and includes, but is not limited to, a disability resulting from any degree of paralysis or from diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or on a wheelchair, cane, crutch or other remedial device or appliance.

A physical disability must not be confused with intellectual disability. Some individuals with physical disabilities have problems with diction, for example, but their intellectual capacity is not affected in any way.

Physical disability varies according to the type and intensity of loss of mobility. People with a physical disability have a loss that reduces the body’s motor skills. Motor skills are based on a complex body structure, which includes the nervous system, spinal cord, muscles, nerves, and joints. The disability affects one or more of these elements (e.g., muscular, neurological, or skeletal systems) rather than a certain part of the body.

There are a wide range of problems grouped together under the term physical disability. They may be directly linked to the disability or may be problems associated with some of the following conditions: amputation, cerebral palsy (cerebral motor disorder), congenital conditions, epilepsy, Friedreich’s ataxia, head injury, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, paraplegia/quadriplegia, scoliosis, or spina bifida. Some disabilities involve the use of mobility devices such as prostheses, orthoses, a cane, a wheelchair, crutches, or a walker.

For people with physical disabilities, accessibility and safety are primary issues that need to be addressed. Access to public areas such as city streets, sidewalks, ramps, elevators, public buildings and restrooms are some of the more common concerns. 3

  • 3. Disabled World (2013).