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An orthopedic impairment is defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as “a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” IDEA specifies that this term “includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly [birth defects], impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).” Put directly, orthopedic impairments involve physical disabilities which could affect the academic process.
As IDEA’s definition demonstrates, orthopedic impairments can stem from various causes. While most of the causes listed are fairly self-explanatory, “burns that cause contractures” warrants further explanation. The National Institutes of Health’s Medline Plus Medical dictionary defines “contracture” as “a permanent shortening (as of muscle, tendon, or scar tissue) producing deformity or distortion.”
An evaluation is required for a disability to be classified as an orthopedic impairment. While the exact requirements for such an evaluation vary by location, this process generally includes a medical assessment performed by a doctor, detecting how the impairment may impact a child’s academic performance and observing the child in his or her educational atmosphere.
Considering the diversity in conditions that are embodied by the orthopedic impairments category, educational challenges will differ case by case, and the strategies used in each case should focus on a student’s unique needs. Possible academic barriers include:
- Non-accessible transportation
- Trouble maneuvering around the classroom
- Difficulty navigating school hallways
- Earning mandated physical education credit
- Communicating effectively
Tips for Teachers and Parents
Parents, know your child’s rights! For instance, IDEA requires schools to provide accessible transportation to and from school, as well as within and in between school buildings. Teachers, you will want to keep in mind mobility devices (such as wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes) when arranging classroom furniture and assigning seats. For example, placing a student who uses a walker close to your room’s entrance is usually more practical than placing him or her in the middle of the classroom.
Navigating school hallways is an especially prevalent issue for junior high and high school students because they move from class to class throughout the day. However, an individualized education program (IEP) can indicate that a student’s schedule should be arranged to eliminate excessive walking back and forth. In addition, students can be granted access to the school’s elevator to allow them to travel safely between floors.
Solutions to the physical education requirement should correspond to the student’s particular physical abilities. A student with a more mild orthopedic impairment may be able to participate in gym class, while a doctor’s note can excuse a student with a severe limitation from participating.
Finally, the same strategies that are used to address communication difficulties in students with a range of disabilities can be helpful for students with orthopedic impairments. These include communication-based assistive technology and speech therapy.