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Physical disability - children

physical; disability; ;

In the early years, children may have some difficulties in learning to move skilfully. This is not unusual. However, for some children, the muscles and nerves that control body movements may not be properly formed or may become damaged causing a physical disability.

There are organisations and services that can help you and your child if your child has a physical disability. On the Raising Children Network website there is a lot of information which may help you navigate the 'system'.

Contents of this topic

For children with a disability and their families life can be quite different to other families.  

What is a physical disability?

A physical disability is any condition that permanently prevents normal body movement and/or control. There are many different types of physical disabilities. Some of the main ones include:

Muscular dystrophies
When a child has muscular dystrophy, this means that the muscle fibres in the body gradually weaken over time. Children can have different types of muscular dystrophy. The most common type is Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy which occurs only in boys. All types of muscular dystrophy are genetic even though other family members may not have the condition. There is more information on the Raising Children Network website Muscular dystophy.

Acquired brain and spinal injuries
Physical disabilities may result from permanent injuries to the brain, spinal cord or limbs that prevent proper movement in parts of the body. Have a look at our topic Acquired brain injury.

Spina bifida
Sometimes, a baby's spinal cord (the nerves that run down the spine) do not develop normally during pregnancy (Neural tube defects). When this happens, the child can have a physical disability called spina bifida. The type and amount of disability caused by spina bifida will depend upon the level of the abnormality of the spinal cord. Children with spina bifida may have:

  • partial or full paralysis of the legs
  • difficulties with bowel and bladder control.

They may also have:

  • hydrocephalus (high pressure on the brain because of fluid not being drained away as normal)
  • bone and joint deformities (they may not grow normally)
  • curvature (bending) of the spine.

Cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the parts of the brain which control movement during the early stages of development. In most cases, this damage occurs during pregnancy. However, damage can sometimes occur during birth and from brain injuries in early infancy (such as lack of oxygen from near drowning, meningitis, head injury or being shaken).

Children with cerebral palsy may have difficulties with:

  • posture (the ability to put the body in a chosen position and keep it there)
  • movement of body parts or the whole body
  • muscle weakness or tightness
  • involuntary muscle movements (spasms)
  • balance and coordination
  • talking and eating.

Children can have different types of cerebral palsy:

  • hemiplegia (involves muscle movements and weakness on one side of the body)
  • diplegia (involves muscle movements and weakness in the lower part of the body)
  • quadriplegia (involves muscle movements and weakness in both arms and both legs)
  • ataxia (involves problems with balance and coordination).

There is much more about Cerebral Palsy in the booklet 'Palsy - an information guide for parents' written for the Royal Children's Hospital (Victoria)

Multiple disabilities
Some children with physical disabilities will have other disabilities, such as intellectual, visual or hearing impairments. They may also have communication difficulties or other medical conditions such as epilepsy or asthma. When a child has several different types of disability, professionals talk about multiple disabilities rather than listing separate conditions.

Causes of physical disabilities

There are many different causes for physical disabilities. These include:

  • inherited or genetic disorders, such as muscular dystrophy
  • conditions present at birth (congenital), such as spina bifida
  • serious illness affecting the brain, nerves or muscles, such as meningitis
  • spinal cord injury
  • brain injury.

Role of a physiotherapist

Physiotherapists can help children with disabilities and their families by:

  • assisting the child to learn how to use parts of the body and develop physical skills
  • helping a child to become mobile (either independently or by using equipment)
  • helping parents to become skilful in assisting their child including lifting, positioning and physical care
  • working with staff from the child's preschool or school.

Role of an occupational therapist

Occupational therapists are often called OTs. The role of an OT is to help a child become fully involved in all aspects of life - at home, at preschool or school and within the general community.

OTs work with each child in different ways depending upon the child's disability, interests and skills. For example, an OT may give advice on any physical changes needed in the home or the child's preschool or school. This advice can include information on the type of stairs, handrail or ramp that will be best for the child. An OT may suggest changes to toys, equipment or furniture and can also advise on ways to improve writing and other hand skills.

Role of a speech pathologist

Children with a physical disability may need help with talking. Some will learn to use alternative methods of communication such as:

  • communication boards or charts
  • electronic devices
  • sign language.

A speech pathologist will assess a child's ability to understand and express thoughts, feelings and ideas, and help to improve communication skills using speech or alternatives to speech. A speech pathologist can also help with eating and drinking problems.

Other important professionals

A number of other health professionals may be involved in helping your child. These include the:

  • orthopaedic surgeon who examines a child's muscles and/or bone structure and provides surgery to manage problems related to these
  • ophthalmologist who is a specialist eye and vision doctor
  • paediatric rehabilitation specialist who assesses and manages the physical condition of children and young people with chronic (ever-present) disabilities
  • orthotist who provides corrective equipment such as splints
  • psychologist who assesses cognitive (thinking) skills and helps to manage emotional and behavioural problems
  • audiologist who assesses hearing.

Special equipment

Many different professionals and agencies can provide advice about equipment for children with physical disabilities. Which will be the best source of information depends upon the needs of your child and your family.

Depending upon your problems, you may need to speak with a physiotherapist, speech pathologist or an occupational therapist. Each of these therapists knows enough about the work of the others to be able to advise you about who could be most useful.

At different times, your child may require equipment to help with:

  • walking/mobility
  • talking/communication
  • eating
  • toileting
  • showering/bathing.

Some equipment for children with physical disabilities can include computer and electronic technology, especially for assistance with communication.

What you can do

  • In some families, physical disabilities can be inherited. If your child has an inherited condition such as muscular dystrophy, you may wish to speak to a genetic counsellor. A genetic counsellor will study your family history and explain the risks of any inherited condition being passed to other children. This counsellor would also be able to provide information to you when you are planning to have children if someone in your family has had an inherited disability. Speak to your family doctor or contact your local hospital for further information.
  • A healthy diet before and during pregnancy can help to prevent some physical disabilities. In particular, extra folate before and around the time of becoming pregnant help to prevent spina bifida.
  • Immunisation against serious childhood illness will help to prevent some physical disabilities.
  • Prevent serious injury to the child's brain or spine through, for example, car and home safety.

If your child has a physical disability:

  • Where possible, enrol at child care, preschool or school well before your child is due to attend so that necessary changes to stairs, toilets or classrooms can be completed.
  • Help teachers by giving them up-to-date information about your child's medical and physical needs. This will assist teachers in choosing the best teaching methods for your child.

Preschool and school

At preschool or school, teachers will discuss physical changes, special equipment and support needs for your child. Sometimes, teachers may be able to get extra help in the classroom or advice from visiting specialist teachers.

Preschools and schools may need to apply for grants to make changes to classrooms and buildings, such as installing wheelchair access ramps or special toilets. Expensive or complex changes to the site may take some time to complete.


South Australia



References and further reading 

Raising Children Network

Better Health Channel (Victoria) 

Prepared in collaboration with
Department of Education, Training and Employment
Ministerial Advisory Committee on Students with Disabilities

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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