Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities

There are many teaching strategies you can use to ensure effective and productive learning environments and experiences for all students, including those with disabilities.

Accessible Education[i] is the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people who have  a variety of backgrounds, abilities and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners[ii].

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, you have a responsibility to learn about accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of accessible programs and courses.

What does it mean if someone has a physical disability?

There are many types of physical disabilities, including mobility-related disabilities, health and medical disabilities, and disabilities that result from brain injuries. Sometimes physical disabilities are obvious; however, it is not always possible to identify someone with a physical disability or a medical- or health-related disability.

Some physical disabilities require the use of an assistive device (for example, a wheelchair or walker). However, those with arthritis or multiple sclerosis, for instance, may not show any visible signs of disability. Physical disabilities may affect someone’s ability to stand, walk, sit or move around. Some physical disabilities are episodic; they can flare up, and then go through periods of remission. Some persons with physical disabilities may be accompanied by a personal support person.

Suggested tips on teaching a person who has a physical disability

In the classroom or laboratory

Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do. Remember that although persons with disabilities might have specific needs, every individual is different.

Prior to the start of the course
  • Choose course materials early. This will allow enough time for you to convert the documents into alternative formats, or for students to request the formats they need.
  • If possible, choose accessible electronic versions of course readings. This will enable students to convert the reading into the format required, whether they use a screen reader, an enlarger or another technology.
  • When digital formats are not available, provide print material sufficiently far in advance to ensure that transcription requirements (for example, into audio-digital or another e-format) can be met in time. Be as precise as you can regarding the texts and pages that will be used.
  • Ensure course packs are complete. Please note that some PDFs (Portable Document Format files) are not accessible to students using a screen reader; when possible, choose tagged PDFs, which may be read by assistive technology.
When the course begins
  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. You can do this both verbally early in the semester and by including an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that such conversations are confidential and are strictly for any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place.
  • Identify and clearly express the essential course content, and recognize that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways. Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to enable all students to demonstrate their specific talents (for example, oral presentations, poster presentations and written assignments).
  • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
  • Consider providing your classes with information about the accessible features of their immediate environment (for example, automatic doors and accessible washrooms).
  • Consider providing all students with the course outline, the list of reading requirements, and copies of all overhead materials, slides, and handouts in an accessible, digital format whenever possible. Some individuals with physical disabilities may have limited dexterity and/or be easily fatigued and rely on the use of assistive technologies or a note-taker.
  • If the classroom or laboratory is not easily navigated by students using a mobility device, such as a wheelchair or scooter, consider if reserved seating or an adjustment to the seating arrangement is an acceptable modification. If this does not meet the learning needs of the student, requesting a change in location may be necessary.
While in session
  • Make sure the student can see the instructor, whiteboard and/or screen at all times.
  • Be aware that students with upper-body weakness or paralysis may be unable to raise their hand. Make eye contact to include the student in classroom discussions.
  • Allow scheduled breaks during lectures, tests and exams.
  • Try to be considerate if the student with a physical disability is coming from across campus; it may take the student longer to reach the classroom.
  • Allow for the use of adaptive technology (for example, screen reader or screen-enhancement software such as screen magnification).
Tests, exams and evaluation

If possible, online tests should be tested for accessibility. Ensure that a student can navigate them using an assistive technology, such as a screen reader to read aloud the information on the screen, or screen-enhancement software that allows the user to magnify the computer screen or change the contrast.

Field trips, work placements and co-ops
  • Plan any activities outside the classroom with accessibility in mind. Contact the Office for Students with Disabilities to discuss any potential considerations and to seek advice on changes you may need to make.
  • Plan activities at accessible locations so that all students can participate or, as a last resort, substitute an alternative activity with the same learning outcomes.
  • Provide additional time for the activity and for transportation. Additional planning may be required for co-ops, work placements and field trips.

Suggestions for interacting one-on-one with a student with a physical disability

The following are some practical tips for teaching students with physical disabilities.

  • Remove obstacles and arrange furniture to ensure clear passage to where you will sit and conduct any meeting.
  • Consider an assistive device as an extension of the person’s personal space.
  • Remember that most power wheelchairs are controlled by a hand-held device and should be left for the individual to control.
  • If a conversation is expected to last longer than a few moments, suggest an area nearby that is comfortable for all parties to be seated.
  • Speak directly to the person, not to an accompanying support person.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Accommodating a student with a physical disability

As an educator, you have a responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Requests for accommodation are made on an individual basis by students through the Office for Students with Disabilities and require medical and/or formal documentation.

The following are common academic accommodations that may be required for students with physical disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the official request for academic accommodations as communicated by the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Classroom and laboratory accommodations

  • If possible, send your teaching material to the student electronically, or transfer it onto a USB flash drive for the student.
  • Assist in identifying potential tutors and/or note-takers.
  • Allow students to audio-record lectures.
  • Allow for preferential seating, either to facilitate better listening or to allow for proximity to an electrical outlet or the exit.
  • Lean towards flexibility for absences and late assignments.
  • Arrange to meet with the student to discuss specific learning needs, strategies for success, alternatives to course assignments, and methods of evaluation when the student provides his or her letter of accommodation.
  • Allow for extensions on assignments and essays.
  • Provide extended time for tests and exams.
  • Allow for alternate scheduling of tests and exams.
  • Provide a separate, distraction-free room for writing tests and/or exams.
Tests, exams and evaluation accommodations

Remember that students with disabilities do not have to disclose their disability to their professors or anyone else in the academic environment in order to receive accommodations. Unless a student chooses to disclose to you the nature of his or her disability, you will only receive information on the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation and the accessibility resources and protocols at your university to ensure you are following recommended practices.


Adaptech, Teaching College Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Professors

Guelph University – Centre for Open Learning and Educational Support brochure, Teaching Students with a Physical Disability

Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Disability Information and Strategies

University of Ottawa, A Guide for Professors: Minimizing the Impact of Learning Obstacles

Trent University, Accessibility in Teaching: Strategies and Requirements for Supporting an Accessible Learning Environment

York University, Faculty Resource Guide: Teaching Students with Disabilities

[i] The term Accessible Education has been adopted to capture the value of two frameworks in improving the accessibility of university education: Universal Instructional Design (UID) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Both were informed by the architectural concept of Universal Design, which is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, The Principles of Universal Design)

“UID is not just about accessibility for persons with a disability – it’s about truly universal thinking – maximizing learning for students of all backgrounds and learner preferences while minimizing the need for special accommodations.” (University of Guelph, UID Implementation Guide)

“UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning)

[ii] Nilson, Linda B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd ed). John Wiley & Sons.