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The 7 Major Types of Physical Disabilities

Disabilities vary from behavioural, mental, intellectual, cognitive and physical. Physical disabilities, also known as mobility disabilities, refer to any condition that affects an individual's body movement and control.

People with physical disabilities tend to have difficulties participating in daily activities, including walking, standing, sitting, moving hands and arms, and controlling muscles. People can develop physical disabilities from an inheritance, injury, illness, accident, or as a medical condition's side effect. Physical disabilities include cerebral palsy, stroke, spina bifida, arthritis, spinal cord injury, epilepsy, and muscular dystrophy.

  • 1

    Cerebral Palsy

    Cerebral palsy is a physical disability resulting from injury to the developing brain during pregnancy, birth, or shortly after birth. But what causes this damage to the brain? Well, illnesses during pregnancy, premature birth, and meningitis in young children are the leading causes of cerebral palsy. When damage to the brain occurs, it causes motor function impairment, leading to movement and coordination problems. However, an individual with cerebral palsy may have other linked disabilities, including behavioural, intellectual, speech, and visual disabilities. Individuals with cerebral palsy require different adaptive equipment and external support to carry out daily activities. The good news is that people with cerebral palsy can achieve greater control over movement if provided with an environment to learn and practice motor skills.

  • 2


    Stroke is a physical disability resulting from bleeding in the brain or interruption of the central nervous system's blood supply. An individual with stroke experiences a sudden impairment on one side of the body, making it difficult to carry out daily activities, including movements. People who suffer from a stroke can regain their independence after treatment but can continue to experience paralysis and weaknesses on the body's affected side. A walking crutch or wheelchair may be required to enable an individual who has had a stroke, to help move from one place to another. Ultimately, it is worth noting that individuals with a stroke can indulge in daily activities that do not require much movement as they can function with one side of their body.

  • 3

    Spina Bifida

    Spina bifida is a type of physical disability, which occurs during pregnancy where there is incomplete closure of the bony encasement of the spinal cord, leaving the spinal nerves exposed. Spina bifida is known to cause paralysis of the lower part of the body, but this depends on the lesion's extent and level. A person with spina bifida can also experience weakness, sensory loss, or both. Additionally, many individuals with spina bifida tend to lose control over their bowel and bladder. This type of disability requires a wheelchair or a pair of crutches to enable movements. Unfortunately, this disability has no known cause and has no cure; hence, it is a life-long disability.

  • 4


    Arthritis is a physical disability that causes inflammation and pain in joints, bones, and muscles. The disability comes in different forms and affects both children and adults. An individual with arthritis tends to experience muscular pains and aches, joint inflammation, and reduced movement or joint stiffness. The symptoms can vary from one individual to another, depending on the  affected body part. Thus, the variance in caring for individuals with arthritis. Exercise and physiotherapy are among the highly recommended techniques for managing this type of disability. People with arthritis can regain movement control if provided with the right tools and environment for managing the disability.

  • 5

    Spinal Cord Injury

    Spinal cord injuries result from a lack of sufficient blood and oxygen supply to the spinal cord. It can also arise from applying excess pressure to the spinal cord. Accidents and falls are the major causes of spinal cord injury. Other factors such as degenerative spinal conditions, cancer, and arthritis can also cause this disability. The injuries lead to partial or total impairment of the motor and sensory functions in the limbs or the body. For this reason, an individual with a spinal cord injury disability will experience a loss of feeling or mobility. Spinal cord injury leads to either tetraplegia or paraplegia. Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, is paralysis affecting most  body parts. Its impact can extend to the stomach, both arms, legs, and some stomach muscles. Paraplegia, on the other hand, causes a loss of bladder and bowel control and movement.

  • 6


    Epilepsy is a neurological condition where an individual tends to have recurring unprovoked seizures. These seizures tend to cause a change in behaviour, sensations or lead to loss of consciousness. It is worth noting that the severity and nature of the episodes vary from one individual to another; hence,  they are not comparable. There are no specific causes of this type of disability. However, brain infection, brain injury, genetics, stroke, and structural abnormalities of the brain can cause epilepsy. Epilepsy is not a lifelong disability to some individuals, and it can be controlled using medications. Surgery can also correct the disability. Medics advise individuals with epilepsy to avoid the known triggers and pay attention to lifestyle issues  likely to trigger seizures.

  • 7

    Muscular Dystrophy

    Muscular dystrophy occurs when the muscles responsible for controlling movement become weak. This type of physical disability has different variations, and each has a different cause. The symptoms of the disability tend to vary depending on  the variation of the disability. Still, they all lead to heart problems, difficulties in swallowing and breathing, and restricted walking and joint motion. The most common type of muscular dystrophy is Duchene, a progressive disability. It mainly occurs in boys and can get worse with time. The disability has no cure. When a child with this disability reaches adolescence, they must use a wheelchair as their muscles are already too weak to control movement. Other types of muscular dystrophy can appear in childhood, while others only become apparent later in life.

Girl on wheelchair  | © Girl on wheelchair (

How to Support Persons with Physical Disabilities

Persons with physical disabilities need support to be able to carry on with daily life activities. The support can be in various forms and includes:

Awareness creation

One way of ensuring the inclusivity of persons with physical disabilities is through creating awareness about their conditions. Article 8 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) calls on States to create awareness about disabilities. Further, Rule 1 of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities requires awareness of such people’s rights, needs, potential, and contribution. Awareness creation should strive to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. In addition, the awareness should aim to counter prejudices, stereotypes, and harmful practices against persons with disabilities. Such initiatives will assist in the realization of Article 3 (d) of the Convention, that advocates for the acceptance and appreciation of differences exhibited by persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity.

Duty Free Assistive Devices

Assistive devices are external gadgets that can help persons with disabilities to carry out daily activities with ease. For persons with physical disabilities, such devices include wheelchairs, prosthetics, commode chairs, crutches, orthopaedic materials among others. These devices play a critical role in enhancing the mobility of persons with disabilities. In addition, the devices help persons with disabilities become independent as they can do several activities independently. However, the cost of assistive devices is prohibitive and not affordable for most persons with disabilities especially in developing countries.

Majority of the devices are imported and while the actual purchase may not be high, it increases with the addition of import duty. The final cost of the devices is exorbitant and unaffordable for most persons with disabilities. Governments should consider exempting assistive devices from import duty, as a way of supporting persons with disabilities. An initiative like this will be in line with Articles 4, 20, and 26 of CRPD that requires States to promote the use of assistive devices and make information about them accessible. Similar guidelines are enshrined in Rule 4 of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (the Standard Rules).

Universal Design

According to Article 2 of the Convention, Universal Design refers to “the design of products, environments, programs, and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Mobility is a challenge for most persons with disabilities, and more so for those with physical disabilities. In some countries, most of the infrastructure such as roads, buildings, public transport systems are discriminative against persons with disabilities. To mitigate the situation, governments should strive to comply with Article 4 (f) of the Convention that requires States to “promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment, and facilities.”


Persons with disabilities, especially those with physical disabilities, need a lot of support to facilitate their movement. Besides ensuring the affordability of assistive devices and universal designs, governments should enhance their accessibility. According to Article 9 of CRPD, accessibility will ensure that persons with disabilities live an independent life. Consequently, the Convention requires States to ensure that persons with disabilities have unrestricted access to all places open to the public. Rule 5 of the Standard Rules also outlines similar guidelines. Therefore, countries should develop and monitor the adoption of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of facilities and services provided for the general population.

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