Who Are Students with Multiple Disabilities?

Students with multiple disabilities can thrive in the right setting

Classroom. Christopher Furlong / Staff / Getty Images

The term "multiple disabilities" obviously means "more than one disability." Within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, however, it has a more technical meaning. "Multiple Disabilities" is a disability category under IDEA. As you might expect, children with multiple disabilities have two or more disabling conditions that affect learning or other important life functions.

Multiple Disabilities Versus Multiple Diagnoses

It's important to note that there is a difference between "multiple disabilities" and "multiple diagnoses." That's because a child may have multiple diagnoses as a result of having been seen by multiple practitioners -- but not fall into the "multiple disabilities" category.

For example, a child with high functioning autism spectrum disorder might have collected additional diagnoses such as social anxiety, sensory dysfunction, and social communication disorder before finally being diagnosed with autism. But the additional diagnoses describe symptoms which are encompassed in autism spectrum disorder.

It's also important to note that, to qualify for the "multiple disabilities" category, both of the student's disorders must be so significant that her educational needs could not be met in programs that are designed to address one of the disabilities alone. Thus, a child with learning disabilities and cerebral palsy might well qualify, as would a child with cognitive challenges and a sensory impairment such as a visual impairment or blindness. A child with ADHD and sensory challenges, however, would most likely NOT qualify, as his two disabilities could almost certainly be addressed in an ADHD classroom.

 However, the IDEA regulations include one exception. Deaf-blindness is excluded under the category multiple disability.

Teaching Students with Multiple Disabilities

Very often, students with multiple disabilities have very severe limitations in their ability to walk, talk, and otherwise engage with peers.

They may also have severe cognitive challenges. As a result, they are typically taught by highly trained teachers using a range of specialized tools. They may also benefit from peer tutoring, and, when possible, should be included and accommodated in typical school activities and events.

Some of the most useful and important tools used to teach and engage with multiply disabled students are technologies and other resources used for augmentative communication.  For a child who cannot speak, or for whom physical movement is very difficult, there are quite a few available options. These include:

  • Simple picture cards 
  • Keyboards with specialized interfaces to support uses with fine motor difficulties
  • iPads and similar devices with apps designed for text-to-voice, picture selection, or other forms of communication

In addition to these, students with severe multiple handicaps may also benefit from a wide range of teaching tools such as:

  • Speech to text technology
  • Educational apps that support the pre-writing and writing process 
  • Curricula that offer differentiated options for students with different learning styles or abilities

A student with multiple disabilities may be able to learn and achieve at a high level, given the resources and opportunity to do so. If you are the parent of child who falls into the multiple disability category, it is important to play an active role in planning, developing, and assessing a plan to support your child's educational and social needs.

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