Severe Disabilities: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

A growing number of students in our schools are classified as having severe disabilities. In this lesson, you will learn about what this means for these students and their participation in the school curriculum.

Severe Disabilities

What are severe disabilities? The term severe disabilities refers to a deficit in one or more areas of functioning that significantly limits an individual's performance of major life activities. The label of severe disabilities can include challenges in one or more of the following areas:

  • Cognition
  • Communication
  • Mobility/Gross Motor Skills
  • Fine Motor Skills
  • Self-Help Skills
  • Social/Emotional Skills
  • Adaptive Behavior
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Visual Impairment
  • Health Impairment

This definition of severe disabilities is rather vague, but it reflects the official definition used by school systems. In reality, students classified as having severe disabilities display a wide range of abilities and needs that a school team must address. Severe disabilities stem from a vast number of causes - what is most important is their impact on the students. Students with severe disabilities possess a range of potential in the school setting, and it is crucial that their education be individualized.

The Role of the School

Schools are required by law to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Within those parameters, different schools adapt different approaches for meeting the needs of students with severe disabilities.

Students with severe disabilities often receive services from a range of professionals. Some examples are a physical therapist, occupational therapist, teacher of the visually impaired, speech therapist, adaptive technology specialist, orientation and mobility specialist, behavioral specialist, and nurse. Each specialist involved in the care of the student must work together cooperatively to address the needs of the student in a holistic fashion.

If this still sounds confusing, it's because there are many possibilities in the realm of severe disabilities. To make things more clear, let's visit a real school classroom and meet some students with severe disabilities.

Mrs. Penten's Class

Mrs. Penten teaches students with severe disabilities in grades three through five. Her students spend the majority of the day in her classroom. Each student spends at least some time each day in the general education classroom, accompanied by an assistant. Meet a few of Mrs. Penten's students.


Jake is nine years old and is in third grade. He has a diagnosis of spastic cerebral palsy and global developmental delays. He uses a wheelchair to get around. Usually someone needs to push him, but he is starting to learn to push the chair himself. He has a walker, and every day he takes short walks in the hallway to run errands, accompanied by an assistant. He has braces for his legs and feet. He requires assistance to use the bathroom, wash his hands, feed himself, and manage his clothing.

Jake's cerebral palsy makes it difficult for him to coordinate muscle movements. He is unsuccessful using traditional classroom tools such as pencils, markers, scissors, and paintbrushes. He uses some adapted equipment to participate in classroom activities.

Jake has a vocabulary of about twenty-five words. He communicates primarily by sounds and gestures. He has limited success using a picture communication system. He loves to laugh at his peers and interact with them. Cognitively, Jake displays understanding similar to that of a typically developing three-year-old. Jake also has a seizure disorder, which is currently controlled by medication. Jake receives services from the physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist. The school nurse has Jake's emergency seizure medication, but has never needed to use it in school.


Amelia is eight years old and in third grade. Her diagnosis includes a disorder where the tissue connecting the two halves of her brain is damaged. She also has a diagnosis of global developmental delays. Amelia is non-verbal, and communicates entirely by gestures. She does not display much interest in communication. She is able to handle classroom tools, but struggles to use them appropriately.

Cognitively, she demonstrates practical self-help skills but struggles with basic pre-academic concepts. Amelia also has some visual impairments and needs teaching materials to be large and use high-contrast colors. Sometimes, Amelia acts out in ways that are dangerous to herself and to others. She is mobile, but requires close supervision for safety reasons. Amelia receives services from the speech therapist and the teacher of the visually impaired.


Jeff is ten years old and in fifth grade. He has a diagnoses of neurological impairment, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, intellectual impairment, and visual impairment. He is legally blind, and demonstrates no ability to see. Jeff uses a wheelchair and is fully dependent for all movement, feeding, and self-help activities. He has a severe seizure disorder, and a few times a week he has large seizures that interfere with his ability to participate in school.

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