Characteristics of Students with Physical or Health Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The characteristics of students with physical or health disabilities are as unique to the individuals as the conditions that created their special needs. The health care needs of some children are so consuming that everything else becomes secondary. Other students, such as some with physical disabilities, require substantial alterations to the physical environment, so that learning is accessible to them, but are quite similar to their typical classmates in many learning characteristics. For still others, their health situation requires intense special accommodations at some points in time, but less so at other times.

The education professionals who make a real difference in the academic lives of these students are first and foremost responsive to the individual learning needs they bring to school. Thus, instead of making generalizations about these students, here we will discuss three of the more common conditions seen at schools. (Remember, however, that both physical and health disabilities are low incidence special education categories.) We will look more closely, then, at

  • Epilepsy
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Sickle cell anemia


Seizures may involve the entire brain (generalized seizures) or only a portion of the brain (partial seizures). The frequency of seizures may vary from a single isolated incident to hundreds in a day. Some individuals actually anticipate their seizures because they experience a preictal stage, or an aura, and have heightened sensory signals of an impending seizure, such as a peculiar smell, taste, vision, sound, or action. Others might experience a change in their behavior. Knowing about an aura pattern is helpful, because it enables the person to assume a safe position or warn the teacher and companions before a seizure begins.

The Epilepsy Foundation of America (2005a) identifies four main types of seizures:

  1. Absence seizures
  2. Simple partial seizures
  3. Complex partial (psychomotor) seizures
  4. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures

Some seizures are difficult for the individual involved and others to recognize. For example, absence seizures or petit mal seizures are characterized by short lapses in consciousness. Because absence seizures are not dramatic, a teacher might wrongly assume that the child is merely daydreaming or not paying attention. Simple partial seizures, which cause people affected to think that their environments are distorted and strange and that inexplicable events and feelings have occurred, can also be difficult to identify. With these seizures, teachers might incorrectly believe that the student is acting out or exhibiting bizarre behavior patterns. Complex partial seizures (also called psychomotor or focal seizures) are short in duration, and the individual returns to normal activities quickly. Sometimes, teachers interpret the child's behavior during this type of seizure as misbehavior or clowning. This situation can be confusing to the child, who is unaware of the episode. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures (formerly referred to as grand mal seizures) are the most serious type of seizure and result in convulsions and loss of consciousness. The dramatic behaviors exhibited during a tonic-clonic seizure may at first be frightening to the teacher and to other students in the class. The student may fall to the floor and experience a stiff (tonic) phase, in which the muscles become rigid, followed by a clonic phase, in which the individual's arms and legs jerk. 

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