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 academic 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.

Health impairments can result in a range of academic challenges for a student. Problems may include missing classes for unpredictable and prolonged time periods and difficulties attending classes full-time or on a daily basis. Health problems may also interfere with the physical skills needed to complete laboratory, computer, or writing assignments. Individuals with arthritis, for example, may have difficulty writing due to pain or joint deformities, making it a challenge for them to meet the writing requirements for some classes. 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 limitations in mobility which require the need to use wheelchairs or scooters for mobility. Some students must avoid specific activities that trigger undesirable reactions. For example, students with asthma may need to avoid specific inhalants in science lab.


Instructor flexibility plays a key role in supporting the success of students with health impairments as many health conditions by nature are unpredictable. The provision of course outlines with clear and well-organized information regarding readings, materials, assignments, and exams can help the student plan, organize, and prioritize his course requirements. Posting information on the web is another way for a student to acquire important information without the need to be physically present in class. Prior knowledge of deadlines and exams may help the student plan doctor appointments and/or medical procedures around important class dates.

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:

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 class involves weekly discussion and peer critique of other students' written work. How can you accommodate a student with a health impairment who misses class frequently for medical reasons? Choose a response.

  1. Encourage the student to withdraw from the course due to the importance of class attendance and interactive work.
  2. Provide a forum for an electronic discussion.
  3. Audiotape each class and allow the student to review missed sessions.
  4. Use a note taker.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. Encourage the student to withdraw from the course due to the importance of class attendance and interactive work.
    Efforts should be made to accommodate the student before this option is considered. Discuss alternatives with the student and the school resource staff who support disabled students.
  2. Provide a forum for an electronic discussion.
    Electronic discussions may provide a good option if the student has access to a computer and the Internet. Students could discuss course topics and/or submit assignments for review and critique via email or a web-based system.
  3. Audiotape each class and allow the student to review missed sessions.
    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 students speak directly into the microphone, limit background noise).
  4. Use a note taker.
    Although a note taker can provide a written summary, much of the essence, flow, and important details of the discussion may be missed.

Specific Activities

For students with health impairments, needs vary greatly by individual and by academic activity. Consult the following sections of the AccessSTEM website for specific academic activities that may pose challenges include:

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable AccessSTEM Knowledge Base.