Supporting disabled learners: what about specific impairments?

A lecturer and students communicating in sign language in the classroom

To help learners reach their full potential, universities and university colleges have disability support teams and mental health and wellbeing advisers who are always happy to speak to learners and educators about support tailored for individual needs and answer any questions.

This could include advice about specific impairments, funding (including the Disabled Students’ Allowance), and about academic and lifestyle support and facilities at that university. You will find the contact details of the student support teams on the university’s website. 

There are also lots of learners and registered physiotherapists who have carved out their careers and have plenty of insights and advice to help others achieve their potential. We have some

Membership of our diversity networks, and in particular the DisAbility network offer a means for learners to get access to peer to peer advice and support from other disabled learners and physiotherapists. 

The following provides basic information and signposting in relation a number of specific impairments. This is not an exhaustive list, but some of the most common are included below.

Impairment-specific advice


According to the RNID, one in give adults in the UK are deaf, or have hearing loss or tinnitus. There are two main types of hearing loss, and it is possible to have both types, known as mixed hearing loss. 

Sensorineural hearing loss makes it more difficult to hear quiet sounds and reduces the quality of sound that you can hear. 

Conductive hearing loss is where sounds will become quieter and things might sound muffled. It can be temporary or permanent. 

Case examples


Invisible impairments and long-term conditions  

In the UK, one in five people have a disability and 80 per cent of them have an invisible disability.

Many impairments and conditions are not immediately obvious, these may include amongst others:

  • Autism
  • Chronic pain
  • Mental health problems
  • Visual impairments
  • Learning differences
  • Hearing impairments
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Long Covid or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)

It’s important to emphasise that there is no strict delineation between visible and non-visible disabilities and to remember that sometimes people experience a combination of both. For example, a wheelchair user may also have a mental health condition.  

Case examples


Neurodivergence/ learning differences  

Neurodiversity is a term that refers to both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals collectively which helps to promote the view that neurological differences are to be recognised and respected.  

A learning difference, which describes an individual’s ability for a specific form of learning, is linked with neurodivergence which describes a condition that affects how a person thinks and processes information and sensory input.

This includes people who are autistic, have dyslexia (reading), dyspraxia (affecting physical co-ordination) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Neurodivergence as a term encompasses specific learning differences, many of which co-occur or overlap. 

These conditions often can affect the ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills, and socialise, depending on how these opportunities are presented.  

People who are neurodivergent often think about and see the world differently, making them a huge asset to any team that wants to improve how they do things and deliver excellent patient care or services. 

Lots of neurodivergent learners will have trained themselves to ‘act more neurotypical’, known as ‘masking’. This extra pressure is often the cause of stress and depression and is likely to make some conditions worse. 

For some people, their neurodivergence can mean that they are better at some things than many other people, and for others, additional support or adjustments would be required. 

Advance HE recommends a proactive approach to inclusivity and language and terminology related to neurodiversity in education can be explored here. 

Case example


Mental health 

The rise in mental health conditions reported by learners in higher education has been significant in the last decade.  

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.  

Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health.  For example, depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness. 

Higher education (HE) providers are autonomous institutions and have a duty of care to students when delivering services, including the provision of pastoral support, and taking steps to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of learners. 

When we talk to learners the challenge of mental health is often raised, and it is understandable why because all stages of the educational journey can present challenges.  

Whether feeling the impact of living away from home for the first time, or the stress and isolation caused by long hours of study, learners can be vulnerable to anxiety and depression. 


Physical disability or impairments 

A physical disability is defined as a “limitation on a person's physical functioning, mobility, dexterity or stamina” that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on an individual's ability to do normal daily activities. (Equality Act, 2010).

Learners with physical impairments may have difficulties with mobility, manual dexterity and speech. 

Some learners use a walking aid, wheelchair or other aids all or some of the time. They might need some support with access or personal care.  

Some physical impairments are fluctuating in impact and, as with all disabled learners, it is important to communicate about what is most useful to them. 

Case study

Visual impairments 

The term 'visual impairment' is used to describe sight loss that cannot be corrected using glasses or contact lenses and the term 'severely sight impaired' is commonly used to describe total, or near-total sight loss (otherwise also termed as 'blindness'). 

Case examples


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