ERIC Identifier: ED371507
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.

Severe Disabilities. ERIC Digest #311. Revised.

The classifications of severe handicaps, severe/profound impairments, or multiple disabilities are less than precise. Children so labeled present a complex picture: they might include those with diagnoses of mental retardation, schizophrenia, autism, or cerebral palsy. Further behavioral, sensory, or orthopedic problems may also be involved.

Mental retardation may be the central and single largest category represented in severe disabilities. The more severe the retardation, the greater is the chance for concomitant problems.

Children with severe disabilities used to be easily defined: they were those children excluded from school on the basis of extensive mental, physical, and/or behavioral impairments that were considered permanent in nature.

More recent efforts to define the population have emphasized the educational considerations rather than static deficiencies. For some students, severe disability may be a transitory condition during which the individual requires frequent care, supervision, and/or assistance.

Baker (1979) put it this way:

The severely handicapped individual is one whose ability to provide for his or her own basic life sustaining and safety needs is so limited, relative to the proficiency expected on the basis of chronological age, that it could pose a serious threat to his or her survival. (p. 60)


Severely disabled individuals may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:

* Self-mutilation.

* Ritualistic behaviors.

* Self-stimulation.

* Failure to attend or relate to others.

* Lack of self-care skills.

* Lack of verbal communication skills.

* Lack of basic physical mobility.


Students with severe disabilities are now attending local schools. Some have been released from institutions, others from isolation at home, and still others have been identified at birth and served in early intervention programs. Whatever their avenue of approach, their arrival at school brings unique issues to the fore, including:

* The degree and quality of interaction between nondisabled and severely disabled students.

* The increasing importance of a multidisciplinary approach with input from occupational, physical, and speech/language therapists; nurses; audiologists; psychologists; social workers; and pediatricians.

* The need for a curriculum grounded in preliminary sensory motor stimulation and subsequent stress on five major areas: motor, self-help, communication, social/interpersonal, and cognitive skills.

* The growing importance of prevocational/vocational training and leisure skills development in the severely disabled student's life as he or she ages.

* The need for arrangements made within the classroom setting to provide for medication, dietary needs, and self-care requirements.

* The use of technological advances, specifically computer applications and electronic communication devices.

* The advent of community living arrangements and the resulting stress on programming for the greatest degree possible of independent living.

Severely disabled individuals do not learn as easily by incidental learning as do less disabled and nondisabled persons. Therefore, instruction in even the most basic skills must be carefully structured and planned.


Baker, D. B. (1979). "Severely handicapped: Toward an inclusive definition." JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR THE SEVERELY HANDICAPPED, 1979, 4(1), 52-65.

Finnie, N. R. (1975). "Handling the young cerebral palsied child at home." New York: E. P. Dutton.

Haring, N. G., & Bricker, D. D. (Eds.). (1978). "Teaching the severely handicapped (Vol. 3)." Columbus, OH: Special Press.

Jegard, S., Anderson, L., Glazer, C., & Witold, A. (1980). "A comprehensive program for multi-handicapped children." Saskatoon, Canada: Alvin Buckwold Centre.

Orelove, F. P., & Sobsey, D. (1987). "Educating children with multiple disabilities: A transdisciplinary approach." Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Sailor, W., & Guess, D. (1983). "Severely handicapped students: An instructional design." Burlington, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Stainback, S., & Stainback, W. (1980). "Educating children with severe maladaptive behaviors." New York: Grune & Stratton.

Stainback, S., & Stainback W. (1985). "Integration of students with severe handicaps into regular schools." Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children/ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children.

Van Etten, G., Arkell, C., & Van Etten, C. (1980). "The severely and profoundly handicapped: Programs, methods, and materials." St. Louis: C. V. Mosby.

Walsh, S. R., & Holzberg, R. (Eds.). (1979). "Understanding and educating the deaf blind/severely and profoundly handicapped." Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

York, R. L., & Edgar, E. (Eds.). (1979). "Teaching the severely handicapped (Vol. 4)." Columbus, OH: Special Press.


Association for Retarded Citizens

P.O. Box 6109

Arlington, TX 76005



The Association for the Severely Handicapped

7010 Roosevelt Way, N.E.

Seattle, WA 98115




Newington Children's Hospital

181 Cedar Street

Newington, CT 06111



Center for Special Education Technology

The Council for Exceptional Children

1920 Association Drive

Reston, VA 22091




National Easter Seal Society

2023 West Ogden Avenue

Chicago, IL 60612



TRACE Research and Development Center

S-151 Waisman Center

1500 Highland Avenue

Madison, WI 53705-2280



United Cerebral Palsy Association

7 Penn Plaza, Suite 804

New York, NY 10001



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