Health Impairments

Case Studies | Q&A's | Resources

There are a range of medical diagnoses and subsequent health problems that can have a temporary or chronic impact on a student's performance. Common diagnoses include Arthritis, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Asthma, AIDS, and heart disease. Unless the condition is neurological in nature, health impairments are not likely to directly affect learning. However, the secondary effects of illness and the side effects of medications can have a significant impact on memory, attention, strength, endurance, and energy levels.

Health impairments can result in a range of challenges for a student. Problems may include missing work or class for unpredictable and prolonged time periods, and difficulties attending school full-time or on a daily basis. Health problems may also interfere with the physical skills needed to be successful in laboratory, computer, or writing activities. Individuals with Arthritis, for example, may have difficulty writing due to pain or joint deformities, making it difficult to meet the writing requirements for some jobs. Students with Multiple Sclerosis may not be able to manipulate small laboratory equipment or complete tasks that require precise measuring, graphing, or drawing. Prolonged sitting may pose challenges for an individual with chronic pain or back problems. Illness or injury may result in mobility limitations that require the need for a wheelchair or scooter to get across campus. Some students must avoid specific activities that trigger their condition. For example, a student with asthma may need to avoid specific inhalants in a lab.


Flexibility plays a key role in supporting the success of students with health impairments, since many health conditions by nature are unpredictable. The provision of clear, well-organized directions can help the student understand content and requirements. Posting information on the Web is a way for a student to acquire important information without the need to be physically present. Prior knowledge of deadlines may help the student plan doctor appointments and/or medical procedures around important deadlines in a job or other responsibilities.

Computer-based instruction, distance learning, and other options that minimize travel and classroom-based instruction provide feasible alternatives for students with illnesses that make regular class attendance difficult.

Examples of typical accommodations for students who have health impairments include

  • audiotaped or videotaped meetings
  • flexible attendance requirements
  • materials available in electronic format
  • the use of email for meetings and discussions
  • web page or email distribution of materials and lecture notes
  • an environment that minimizes fatigue and injury
  • an ergonomic workstation with adjustable keyboard trays, monitor risers, glare guards, foot rests, adjustable chairs, and/or antifatigue matting
  • speech recognition computer input devices, ergonomic keyboards, one-handed keyboards, expanded keyboards, or miniature keyboards

When health conditions result in permanent or temporary mobility problems, accommodations for students with mobility impairments may be appropriate.

Check Your Understanding

Consider the following example. A key part of your student work in your campus services office involves weekly meetings of all student employees. How can you accommodate a student with a health impairment who misses meetings frequently and unpredictably for medical reasons? Choose a response.

  1. Dismiss the student from the position because of the importance of collaborative work.
  2. Provide a forum for an electronic discussion.
  3. Audiotape each meeting the student misses.
  4. Use a note taker.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. Dismiss the student from the position because of the importance of collaborative work.
    Efforts should be made to accommodate the student before this option is considered. Discuss alternatives with the student and the campus disabled student services office or the human resources office.
  2. Provide a forum for an electronic discussion.
    Electronic discussions may provide a good option if all participants have access to the necessary technology. Students could discuss topics or issues via email or a web-based communication system.
  3. Audiotape each meeting the student misses.
    If this accommodation is determined appropriate, be sure to work out the logistics of getting tapes to the student in a timely manner. The quality of the audiotape would also need to be assured (e.g., have meeting participants speak directly into the microphone, limiting background noise).
  4. Use a note taker.
    Although a note taker can provide a written summary, much of the essence, flow, and other important details of a meeting may be missed.

For frequently asked questions, case studies, and promising practices, consult the searchable Knowledge Base in The Conference Room (

Specific Student Services

For a student with health impairments, needs vary greatly by individual and by the student service accessed. Challenges for specific student service offices are highlighted in the following areas of The Conference Room: