Students With Multiple Disabilities

Classroom with children with disabilties
Christopher Furlong / Staff / Getty Images

The term "multiple disabilities" obviously means "more than one disability." Within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), however, it has a more technical meaning. "Multiple disabilities" is a disability category under the 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, the student's disorders must be so significant that their educational needs could not be met in programs that are designed to address one of the disabilities alone. Thus, a child with a specific learning disability and cerebral palsy might well qualify, as would a child with cognitive challenges and a sensory impairment such as visual impairment or blindness.

There are some situations where two disabilities may not qualify for "multiple disabilities." For example, although visual impairment and hearing impairment are listed as separate disabilities, when a child has both together, this does not qualify as "multiple disabilities." In fact, deaf-blindness is classified as its own specific disability. Additionally, a child with ADHD and sensory challenges, would most likely NOT qualify, as their two disabilities could almost certainly be addressed in an ADHD classroom.

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.

Students with multiple disabilities may also benefit from peer tutoring, and, when possible, should be included and accommodated in typical school activities and events.

Teaching Tools for Children With Multiple Disabilities

Some of the most useful and important tools used to teach and engage with students with multiple disabilities are technologies and other resources used for augmentative and alternative 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 users 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

Parents of Children With Multiple Disabilities

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 a 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.

It's important to make a special note for parents of children with learning disabilities as to their own health and well being. The majority of what you will talk about and learn through your child's special educational journey will be ways in which you can help your child. Yet parents have needs as well.

Life can be terribly stressful. While you have more demands on your time and patience than parents who do not have special needs children, you have less time to fill up your own emotional tank through time with friends and leisure time activity. Together that adds up to a lot of stress.

You've probably heard it a dozen times, but it is important to take care of yourself and put your own needs first at times. 

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Sec. 300.8 Child with a disability.

  2. Horn EM, Kang J. Supporting young children with multiple disabilities: What do we know and what do we still need To learnTopics Early Child Spec Educ. 2012;31(4):241–248. doi:10.1177/0271121411426487

  3. Elsahar Y, Hu S, Bouazza-Marouf K, Kerr D, Mansor A. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) advances: a review of configurations for individuals with a speech disabilitySensors. 2019;19(8):1911. doi:10.3390/s19081911

  4. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

  5. Feizi A, Najmi B, Salesi A, Chorami M, Hoveidafar R. Parenting stress among mothers of children with different physical, mental, and psychological problemsJ Res Med Sci. 2014;19(2):145–152.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.