Physical Disabilities

Physical Disabilities - what is it?

  • Physical disability covers a wide range of impairment from mild to severe and may affect some/all levels of functioning and engagement in the education environment.
  • Physical disability can be as transient as a broken limb or arising from a congenital defect.  It is marked however by a difficulty in accessing the physical and social environment for which specific accommodations may be needed.
  • Physical disability uniquely affects individuals and thus personalised and specific accommodations are often required for accessibility.
  • Students may have physical disabilities arising from conditions such as congenital deformities, spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, brittle bones, hemophilia, arthritis or severe accidental injury. It is important to state that there is no necessary direct correlation between the degree of physical disability and the inability to cope with the university curriculum, apart from the elements involving physical activity. Physical access can be a major concern for students who have physical disabilities as those who use wheelchairs, braces, crutches, rolators, canes or prostheses, or those who fatigue easily may have difficulty moving around campus.


485 students or 7% of the student population registered with disabilities in Higher Education in Ireland have a physical disability (AHEAD, 2011).

Impact on Learning

  • Physical access.
  • Difficulty writing, holding or manipulating objects, and carrying out specific tasks.
  • Those who use wheelchairs, calipers, crutches, canes or prostheses often find it difficult moving about especially within the time constraints imposed by timetables.
  • Decreased stamina.
  • Transport difficulties.
  • Student may be absent from college for hospital appointments.
  • Fatigue and weakness leading to problems completing exams / lectures etc.

Example of Conditions

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a result of injury to the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum. It is characterised by impaired muscular function. It is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by injury or abnormal development in the immature brain, most often before birth. Signs and symptoms appear during infancy or preschool years. In general, cerebral palsy causes impaired movement associated with exaggerated reflexes or rigidity of the limbs and trunk, abnormal posture, involuntary movements, unsteadiness of walking, or some combination of these. The effect of cerebral palsy on functional abilities varies greatly.People with cerebral palsy often have other conditions related to developmental brain abnormalities, such as intellectual disabilities, vision and hearing problems, or seizures. A broad spectrum of treatments may help minimize the effect of cerebral palsy and improve a person's functional abilities.

Multiple Sclerosis(MS) is a progressive disease of the central nervous system characterised by decreased nerve function. It is a potentially debilitating disease in which the body's immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers the nerves. This interferes with the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Ultimately, this may result in deterioration of the nerves themselves, a process that's not reversible. Symptoms vary widely, depending on the amount of damage and which nerves are affected. People with severe cases of multiple sclerosis may lose the ability to walk or speak. Multiple sclerosis can be difficult to diagnose early in the course of the disease because symptoms often come and go — sometimes disappearing for months.There's no cure for multiple sclerosis. However treatments can help treat attacks, modify the course of the disease and treat symptoms

Muscular dystrophy is a group of genetic diseases in which muscle fibres are unusually susceptible to damage. These damaged muscles become progressively weaker. Most people who have muscular dystrophy will eventually need to use a wheelchair. There are many different kinds of muscular dystrophy. Symptoms of the most common variety begin in childhood, primarily in boys. Other types of muscular dystrophy don't surface until adulthood.People who have muscular dystrophy may have trouble breathing or swallowing. Their limbs may also draw inward and become fixed in that position — a problem called contracture. Some varieties of the disease can also affect the heart and other organs.While there is no cure for muscular dystrophy, medications and therapy can slow the course of the disease.

Spina Bifida or Hydrocephalus can occur when one or more vertebrae in the spine fail to form properly in early pregnancy. When this happens, the nerves in the spine may be unprotected and this can lead to damage to the central nervous system.

How can you help?

  • Please refer to the Guidelines on Inclusive Teaching and Assessment.
  • Allow for the time and fatigue factors that may arise as the student moves between lectures.
  • Be conscious that the student may tire easily and may require rest periods or breaks during lectures, tutorials or class tests.
  • Never push a person’s wheelchair without their permission – offer help if you think it is required but do not impose it.
  • When talking to a person who uses a wheelchair, sit down (if possible) so that you are both on the same level.
  • People who walk using sticks or crutches may appreciate help with carrying belongings or opening doors
  • Try to keep walkways, corridors and aisles free from obstructions.
  • When walking with a person who uses crutches or a wheelchair adjust your pace to match theirs.

Supports available through DSS

  • When the student registers with the Disability Support Service they receive a detailed needs assessment report
  • It is a collaborative document between the student and the disability advisor, parts of which are circulated to their department.
  • This report details the supports that the student needs at higher level
  • The Disability Support Service will also put in place, exam accommodations, assistive technology, and should the student require, act as an advocate on their behalf.


 Reasonable Accommodations

  • You should aim for comfort and accessibility, ensuring all equipment is fit for purpose and comfortable for students to use. Examples include; lowered work stations for wheelchair users, or large handle or weighted lab tools for those with poor grip strength.

  • Ensure that the physical environment is accessible, that it has a comfortable turning circle for wheelchair users and that where possible extra power supplies can be made available for any equipment the student may need to use.

  • Wheelchair users should (insofar as is possible) be accommodated to sit with their peers and not be isolated from the class.

Recommendations for Examination Accommodations

  • Extra time – 10 minutes per hour.
  • Rest periods during the examination.
  • Use of a computer or scribe where handwriting poses difficulties.


Disability Support Service

South Lodge, UCC, College Road, Cork