Assessing an institution for students with physical disabilities


Sometimes counsellors are faced with guiding a student to a university where the curriculum may be a good fit, but the physical environment may not be a good fit. This is particularly true for a student who has a physical disability. 

The first image that comes to mind when one uses the term 'physical disability' is an individual who has some sort of motor impairment. However, a physical disability encompasses more than simply a motor impairment. Physical disabilities include visual and hearing impairments. These are in contrast to cognitive or developmental disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, autism or Asperger syndrome. 

The causes of impairments in motor functioning can be:

  • congenital, meaning that the student was born with it and may be due to genetics.
  • a trauma during the birthing process, such as low or a total lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia and anoxia, respectively.
  • disease, such as muscular dystrophy or arthritis.
  • accidents and head injuries can impair a student’s motor functioning. 

The statistics

According to the US Census Bureau, there were 53.9 million school children aged 5-17 in 2010. Approximately 2.8 million or 5.2% of those children were identified as having some sort of disability.

The vast majority of those students have some sort of cognitive difficulty. Ambulatory difficulties only represent about 2% of the students with some sort of disability. Students with ambulatory difficulties are more likely to live outside a metropolitan area and less likely to attend a public school than students with other types of disabilities (Brault, 2011).

Accessibility legislation in the USA

A guidance counsellor needs to worry about the goodness of fit between the student’s academic interests, the university’s course offerings and the receptivity of the physical environment to a student with ambulatory issues. 

Although, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which precludes organizations and businesses such as colleges and universities from discriminating against an individual solely on the basis of his or her disability, not all colleges and universities are the same in their interpretations of the ADA.

The law requires organizations to make reasonable accommodations for the individual with a disability so as not to discriminate against them, however the organization may do so based upon the size of the organization and its budget. Consequently, physical accessibility varies greatly. 

Larger, newer universities are more likely to have constructed classroom buildings after 1990 and this would require the designs to consider universal access. Older colleges may have their buildings ‘grandfathered’ into the law and may not require access modifications such as ramps and lifts.