Multiple Disabilities: Definition & Prevalence

Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

Learn about what a disability is, what it means to have multiple disabilities, and the prevalence of multiple disabilities in the United States population.

What is a Disability?

According to the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the best known pieces of legislation dealing with disabilities, a disability is defined as 'a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities'.

A physical disability like paralysis or muscular dystrophy could limit a person's ability to move and function like a non-disabled peer.

Mental disabilities include conditions like schizophrenia or dyslexia, which affect a person's ability to mentally function at a level comparable to their peers. Schizophrenia would impact someone's ability to socially interact like their peers, and dyslexia would impact their ability to read at the same pace or in the same way as their peers.

What Does It Mean to Have Multiple Disabilities?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States law passed in the 1970s to ensure children with disabilities receive an appropriate education. Under IDEA, a person is classified as having multiple disabilities if they exhibit two or more types of disabilities concurrently. These disabilities must cause significant enough impairments that the student is not able to be accommodated sufficiently for one of the impairments in a traditional special education program setting.

This could be two different types of physical disabilities, two different mental disabilities, or a combination of physical and mental disabilities. Common combinations of disabilities include mental disabilities with blindness, mental disabilities with a physical impairment, and physical disabilities with learning disabilities. However, the specific types of disabilities may vary from state to state.

In certain cases, students may have average or higher intellectual abilities but require extensive accommodation due to more substantial physical disabilities. This could include gifted students or highly functioning autistic students who require accommodation for an orthopedic impairment, deafness, or blindness.

Students with multiple disabilities can be successful in a school setting if provided with the proper accommodations.

Prevalence of Multiple Disabilities in the United States

In the United States, the percent of the population exhibiting multiple disabilities is relatively low when compared to other disability classifications. Multiple disabilities account for only two to three percent of all disabled persons in the United States, based on data since the year 2000.

The prevalence of multiple disabilities appears to have gone up since the implementation of IDEA in the 1970s; however it is speculated that this is due to changes in the way people classify disabilities.

Additionally, prior to the implementation of IDEA, many students with multiple disabilities were either educated at home or institutionalized, so part of the increase in the statistics since the 1970s can likely be attributed to an increased number of students with multiple disabilities entering the traditional public education system.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account