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Physical Disability

For purposes of efficacy, disability categories can be grouped in three broad categories of functional disability: (1) sensory impairments such as visual or hearing impairments, (2) physical or motor impairments, and (3) cognitive disabilities. Physical or motor disabilities often result in students being unable to read or use standard print materials. These students may have difficulty lifting, positioning, or holding books and turning pages and may require specialized formats of textbooks and core related instructional materials. The provision of accessible instructional materials via appropriate assistive technology generally enables students to access information, develop literacy skills, communicate independently and efficiently, and participate in educational activities.

Students with physical and motor disabilities are often identified as needing special education and related services under the Opens new windowIndividuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the following categories:

  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairment

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs’ web site, Opens new windowBuilding the Legacy: IDEA 2004, provides definitions of the specific disability categories as stated in IDEA.

Additionally, students with physical disabilities may be served under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Impairments in physical or motor functioning may be the result of any number of different medical conditions and the degree of impact of the medical condition on functional ability can range from mild to severe within the same medical diagnosis. Decisions about a student’s educational programming and accessible instructional materials are made based on the unique needs of each student on a case-by-case basis and are not based on a medical diagnosis or condition. These students typically require specially designed instruction, related services, and accommodations or modifications which include assistive technology to access the curriculum and participate in classroom activities. Most of these students will also need specialized formats of print instructional materials.

The functional implications of a disability in the classroom and other environments are key factors to consider in determining if a student requires assistive technology and accessible instructional materials and, if so, in making appropriate selections of assistive technology, specialized formats, and supports needed to access, participate, and achieve in the educational curriculum. Decisions are made based on a student’s needs, environments in which tasks will be completed, and the nature of tasks a student needs to accomplish. Based on a variety of factors—including environments and tasks—more than one format may be needed for the same student.

When selecting which specialized format(s) might be needed for students with limited motor function, audio and digital text formats would most commonly be considered. Both formats utilize technology to deliver content in a student-ready format. For some, an audio format (which renders content as audio to which a student listens) may be beneficial. Others may benefit from the use of a digital text format (which is an electronic format that can be delivered via a computer or another device). Digital text is malleable and can be easily transformed in many different ways, depending upon student needs and the technology being used to display content. To accommodate the needs and preferences of a user, various features of technology which controls how content is presented can be manipulated such as text size, fonts, colors, contrast, highlighting, and use of text-to-speech. Digital text may contain both audio and visual output depending upon the way content is developed and the technology that is being used to access it. Software that incorporates text-to-speech functionality and additional learning supports is often referred to as supported reading software and may be beneficial for students with physical disabilities.

Once a decision-making team has selected the format(s) that a student will need, their team determines what technology; support services; training for the student, educators, and family; instructional teaching strategies; and accommodations or modifications may be required for successful use of chosen accessible materials. When specialized formats and supports for use are well-matched to a student’s individual needs and abilities, the result can mean the difference between exclusion and achievement.

For detailed information about specialized formats and a student centered decision-making process, refer to the AIM Navigator. The AIM Navigator is an interactive, online tool that facilitates the process of decision-making around accessible instructional materials for an individual student. The four major decision points in the process include 1) determination of need, 2) selection of format(s), 3) acquisition of format(s), and 4) selection of supports for use. The AIM Navigator also includes a robust set of guiding questions and useful references and resources specifically related to each decision point. Different levels of support scaffolds are built-in, so that teams can access information at the level needed to assist them in making informed, accurate decisions.—

General Resources for Physical Disability

Opens new windowFamily Center on Technology and Disability—Search Organizations

Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—Disability Specific Fact Sheets

Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—State Organization—Search by State

Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—National Organization Gateway

Opens new windowWebAIM: Motor Disabilities

Orthopedic Impairment


Opens new windowNational Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)—Orthopedic Impairments Topic Categories

Other Health Impairment


Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) Disability Fact Sheet 15

Traumatic Brain Injury


Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) Disability Fact Sheet 18

National Organizations

Opens new windowBrain Injury Association of America (BIAA) is dedicated to increasing access to quality healthcare and raising awareness and understanding of brain injury through advocacy, education, and research.

Opens new windowNational Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury (NRCTBI) works to provide relevant practical information for professionals, persons with brain injury, and their family members.


Last Updated: 01/30/2015

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