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Students with Multiple Disabilities: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines multiple disabilities as a concomitant or simultaneous impairments such as intellectual disability combined with orthopedic impairment or intellectual disability combined with blindness.

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Students with multiple disabilities need our help

These combinations tend to cause such severe educational needs that the learner in question cannot be accommodated in special education programs that are designed solely for a single impairment. This term, however, does not include deaf-blindness. In other words, learners whose special needs are classified under multiple disabilities require coinciding adoptions for more than a single disability.

Educational challenges associated with students with multiple disabilities.

Without a doubt, disabilities can cause numerous learning challenges. For instance, a learner who is prone to seizures does pose a safety concern both within and outside the classroom environment.

Some of the common educational challenges associated with learners with multiple disabilities revolve around the following issues:
  • The learner’s ability to effectively communicate with peers, teachers, and support staff
  • Putting in place a setting that best suits the learner’s intelligence level
  • Assessing the learner for visual and hearing challenges
  • The student’s overall ability to function in the classroom

Teaching tools for students with multiple disabilities

Some of the most effective tools for engaging learners with multiple disabilities include technologies and augmentative communication resources. A few options are available for learners with speaking or moving challenges.

These include:
  • Gadgets with text-to-voice and picture selection applications or other forms of communication
  • Special keyboards with interfaces that support users with motor difficulty
  • Simple picture cards

Alongside these, learners with multiple disabilities can also benefit from a range of teaching tools.

Here are some of them:
  • Education applications that support the pre-writing and writing process
  • Speed-to-text technology
  • A curriculum that offers differentiated options for learners with varying learning abilities and styles

Tips for handling students with multiple disabilities

Very often, learners with multiple disabilities tend to have very severe limitations to their ability to talk, walk and engage with teachers and their peers. Some may also have severe cognitive challenges. This requires that they are taught by specially trained teachers using a range of special resources. Some may also benefit from peer tutoring by peers.

Additionally, where possible, they should be encouraged to participate in the school’s events and activities. Here are eight tips that can help you engage productively with learners with multiple disabilities.

1. Believe in your learners!

As a teacher, it is important that you believe in your student’s ability to acquire new skills. While this may sound easy, it can be very challenging, especially if you have tried lots of things but none seem to be working.

Hang in there and remind yourself that they can do it! After all, some of mankind’s biggest failures often turn out to be their greatest successes!

2. Have a plan

Start by developing short-term, mid-term, and long-term learning goals for your learners.

What would you want your students to be able to do after, say, three months, one year, and four years?

Be functional and realistic when setting these goals, and do not underestimate your students either. Goals are key to guiding the direction of the learning programs you develop. Give your students adequate time to learn and make progress because new skills are often acquired at a very slow pace.

3. Learn to work together with team members

It’s important that you consistently share updates with other teachers, parents, and therapists on the learners’ progress. By working together, you will definitely find novel solutions to challenges that pop up along the way. No one has the monopoly of knowledge and solutions, and it is only by engaging everyone’s skills and observations with respect to the learner’s progress that there will be enough resources to realize the desired success. Of course, finding ways to keep in touch with everyone involved in your students’ lives can be challenging.

However, you can always figure out how to stay in constant contact. Take advantage of any and all the available means of keeping in touch: from emails to phone calls, home and school notebooks, as well as home visits. You can schedule bi-weekly or monthly meetings with the learner’s parents or therapist.

4. Directly work with your students’ paraprofessionals

Consider working with the learners at least once or twice per week, even if you are not their teacher on a day-to-day basis. Come up with a model on how you will incorporate your strategies and activities with the paraprofessional that is working with the student.

Regularly keep in touch with the paraprofessional for feedback on the learner’s progress, as well as for ideas on how to solve problems that arise.

5. Wait for the learner’s response

Give your learners adequate time when expecting their response. Remember, depending on the nature of the disability, some learners require more than 45 seconds to assess the situation, figure out what they are required to do, and then do it.

Additionally, most students with multiple disabilities develop learned helplessness over time, knowing that if they just sit back then someone will step up and complete the task for them. Avoid being the Magic Fairy!

6. Make decisions based on the type of communicators your students are

With the help of a Speech and Language Therapist, find out the type of communicator your student is.

Are they intentional but informal, unintentional, or a symbolic communicator? When you have an unintentional communicator, you can focus on how you will respond to their unintentional communications, including how you can introduce points during your conversation with them.

If they are intentional but informal then you can figure out how to set up a plan that will help them become symbolic communicators. And if they are already symbolic communicators, then figure out how to take things to another level.

7. Make decisions based on the learning medium

Make use of the student’s learning medium to arrive at decisions about the kind of abstract symbol system you will use with them. Students gather information using different Learning Mediums. These include auditory medium, visual medium, or tactful information learning.

How your students learn drives the type of Communicative Symbol System that will deliver the best possible outcome. The Speech and Language Therapist need to work closely with the TVI in determining the most appropriate symbol system for communication. The way the learner communicates will then inform the choice of a symbol system to be used for communicating with them as well as the literacy system.

This process takes time and will require multiple trials over a time period before selecting the most appropriate method. For instance, if the student is primarily an auditory learner, then they are less likely to register significant progress with visual-based learning system like boardmaker symbols.

8. Determine how the student will respond

Work closely with other team members like the Special Education teacher, S&L, and OT to determine how the learner will indicate their response. Will they respond with their hand or other body part using visually guided reach, use eye gaze, apply tactile skills to search and select, or pick an item from an auditory list by responding with a sound and/or body movement.

You can determine this by combining the student’s Preferred Learning Medium with their functional motor and visual skills. Once you have determined how the learner responds, be sure to pass this information to everyone who works with the student.


Students with multiple learning disabilities require unique adaptations, instructional approach, and a tailor-made learning environment. It is important for these learners to participate in a functioning curriculum that capitalizes on their skills and the need to be as independent, active, and engaged as possible. Learning must be tailored to focus on the student’s current and future life quality, ensuring that the focus is realistic and capable of delivering the skills that will help them successfully interact with the world.

While setting up the learning environment, it is also important to provide learners with sensory areas that meet their unique visual needs. If you have students who are on positioning equipment like wheelchairs, be sure to set up activities that they can easily interact with.