Most mobility limitations result from a broad range of neuromuscular and orthopedic disabilities that produce wide variations in the nature and extent of the remaining physical functions. Do not generalize with regard to specific limitations of persons with these kinds of disabilities. Functional abilities vary widely not only among the disabilities, but also among students with the same disability. General conditions affecting the degree of limitation may include age at onset, progression rate, disorder, level and extent of injury, and response to treatment. Some disabilities are progressive (as in muscular dystrophy); others are not. Limitations associated with some disabilities fluctuate with periods of remission and exacerbation (as in multiple sclerosis and arthritis), some may remain constant (as in spina bifida), and others may improve with time and therapy.
The student with the disability is the best source of information regarding the disability and accompanying specific limitations. Student Disability Services can also give you information about various disabilities.
Although it is difficult to generalize about classroom needs of students with physical disabilities, the major limitations affecting college participation generally involve mobility and hand dexterity.
Access and timely travel are the major concerns of students who use wheelchairs, crutches, canes, walkers, braces, or other mobility aids. These students must learn the routes across campus that do not present barriers (stairs, curbs, narrow walkways, heavy doors, and balky elevators). Since a ten-minute break between classes barely is sufficient for able-bodied students, you cannot expect students with mobility limitations to be able to move from building to building so quickly. Most mobility-impaired students try to consider travel time in planning class schedules but they are not always able to avoid tight schedules. Therefore, when they have classes in sequence, they frequently may be a few minutes late or, on occasion, may need to leave early.
Inclement weather circuitous routes, crowded walkways or corridors, and long waits for elevators may contribute to the problem. If a student’s lateness become chronic, it is appropriate to discuss the situation and seek solutions that may include better planning on the part of the student. Students with disabilities at Allegheny are eligible for priority class scheduling. This service gives eligible students the opportunity to plan class schedules so as to minimize travel time and distance between classes.
If the class involves field work or field trips, care should be taken in selecting the site to ensure that the facility is accessible enough for the mobility-impaired student to participate and benefit from the experience. If there is a need for transportation, faculty members may contact the Student Disability Services Coordinator at (814) 332-2898 to make arrangements.
Most of these students will not require academic classroom accommodations except with regard to their seating arrangements and the assistance of note takers in the class. Almost all students with dexterity problems will engage classmates as note takers. Note takers use carbonless notepaper that is provided by the Learning Commons. It is a tool that is easily acquired and used. It is the consummate ticket to classroom accommodation for students with hand or arm limitations. Persons with mobility limitations may prefer to sit near the classroom entrance to avoid additional walking. Students who use wheelchairs will need adequate floor space in the front, on the side, or in the rear of the room so that they can park without blocking the flow of traffic. Some students who walk short distances and prefer to get out of their wheelchairs may require special desks or tables that comfortably accommodate them. Student Disability Services will help make arrangements for such furniture. Using a wheelchair only part of the time does not mean that a person is “faking” a disability. It usually is a means to conserve energy or move about more quickly. Some students who normally use mobility aids other than a wheelchair sometimes will use a wheelchair because of weather conditions or medical flare-ups.
Classes taught in laboratory settings usually require some modification of the work stations for wheelchair users. The amount of under-counter space, working reach, and aisle widths are the primary concerns. Working directly with the student is the best way to alter the work station. Some wheelchair users may be able to use regular work stations if they can transfer from the wheelchair to another seat at the work station. Sometimes a special work station can be set up at an accessible table.
Hand and Arm Dexterity Problems
Students may have hand and arm dexterity problems alone (carpal tunnel syndrome, where the nerve in the wrist is compressed) or in conjunction with mobility limitations (spinal cord injury quadriplegia). Generally speaking, hand dexterity problems have greater impact of academic functioning than mobility limitations, but again, the specific limitation will depend on the type and severity of the disability.
Some students with hand dexterity impairments are able to write to some degree; others cannot write at all. Those who do their own writing usually require additional time to do so. Students with hand and arm impairments often tape record class lectures or have note takers. Some can type their own papers by using regular or adapted keyboards or keyguards; others use voice recognition software. Unless tests are all objective, with answers that can simply be marked or circled, most will require special test accommodations in the form of extra time or the use of a scribe or a word processor.
Students with hand and arm impairments should be allowed and encouraged to participate to the fullest extent possible in laboratory classes. If the lab objective is to learn a procedural process and resulting reaction, as in a chemistry experiment, the objective can usually be achieved if the student has an aide or is paired with a classmate who can carry out step-by-step instructions given by the student (type of test tube to use, what chemical to add when, and where and how to dispose of use chemicals). In this way, the disabled student is actively involved and will learn everything except how to physically manipulate the chemicals.
Tips for Positive Communication
- Students with mobility limitations will ask for assistance when they need it. Do not assume that assistance is needed.
- When conversing with someone in a wheelchair, sit so that you are at that person’s eye level whenever possible. Leaning on a wheelchair is tantamount to leaning on a person’s shoulder- it is an invasion of personal space.
- When discussing a student’s disability and accommodation and adaptation needs, talk only about needs that are relevant to the successful completion of course work.
- Keep all information confidential.
- Refer to a person in a wheelchair a “wheelchair user,” and not as “confined” to a wheelchair. Most people using wheelchairs transfer to furniture, automobiles, etc., using wheelchairs only as means of movement from one point to another.
- If a student’s speech is affected by the disability and difficult to understand, do not hesitate to ask the student to repeat.
Suggested Classroom Accommodations
- Contact Student Disability Services concerning matters of classroom accommodation.
- Support the use of note takers and taped lectures; tape recording agreements are available from the SDS office; carbonless notepaper is available in the Learning Commons.
- Restructure laboratory experiences to include the use of a partner for students with hand and arm dexterity problems. The partner can perform the active parts of the assignment at the direction of the disabled student.
- Work with students to arrange for appropriate time for completion of class assignments.
- Be realistic in seeking solutions when a student is late to class. Although inclement weather, circuitous route, elevator problems, and crowds are contributing causes, chronic lateness is not acceptable and needs to be discussed with the student.
- Allow for adequate break time during class if the class meets for an extended period so that the student can attend to such physical needs as stretching, medication, and restroom use.