Health Impairments

There is 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 that make it necessary to use wheelchairs or scooters. Some students must avoid specific activities that trigger undesirable reactions. For example, students with asthma may need to avoid specific inhalants in a science lab.


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 and task instructions 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. Prior knowledge of deadlines and exams may help the student plan doctor appointments and/or medical procedures around important 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:

  • note takers
  • recorded class sessions or meetings
  • flexible attendance requirements
  • extended exam time
  • alternative testing arrangements
  • assignments available in electronic format
  • the use of electronic mail for supervisor- and instructor-student meetings and for class or small group discussions • web-based or email distribution of course materials, lecture notes, and other documents
  • environments that minimize fatigue and injury
  • an ergonomic workstation with adjustable keyboard trays, monitor risers, glare guards, foot rests, adjustable chairs, and/or anti-fatigue 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. Audio record each meeting the student misses.
  4. Use a note taker.


  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 online.
  3. Audio record each meeting the student misses.
    If this accommodation is determined appropriate, be sure to work out the logistics of getting recordings to the student in a timely manner. The quality of the recording 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.

More Information

Explore DO-IT Publications, Knowledge Base articles, and websites on this topic at Accommodation Resources: Health Impairments. To learn about specific accommodations for an academic activity, select from the list below.