As the term suggests, this disability category encompasses a combination of conditions that may impact a student's ability to learn and achieve success in an academic setting. Students with severe disabilities are typically included under this umbrella terminology.
Multiple disabilities are defined in one regulation as "concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments."
(34 C.F.R., sec. 300[b])
This disability category includes those students with the most severe physical, cognitive, and communicative impairments. It should be noted however, that these students can also have average or even above-average intelligence. The common connection between students in this category is not just that they have two or more coexisting impairments, but that they generally need extensive support across any number of skill areas.
The U.S. Department of Education reports 5,971,495 students receiving special education services in the 2003-2004 school year. Of that number, roughly 2.2%, or 132,333 students, received special education services based on a classification of multiple disabilities.
The multiple disability category represents a wide range of specific conditions and impairments. The best places for a classroom teacher to learn about their individual student with multiple disabilities are past assessments and Individualized Education Programs. The next step in learning about the student is to form a relationship with the student's parents, as they are really the greatest experts on the capabilities of their child.
However, children with multiple disabilities will typically share deficits in five distinct areas of development: intellectual functioning, adaptive skills, motor skills, sensory functioning, and communication skills.
Impact on Learning
Most of the students served under the multiple disability category do have some level of cognitive impairment, but the specific diagnosis of this impairment can often be ambiguous or undetermined. The ability levels of these students can vary widely, from functional academics to basic life skills. However, most of these students are still quite capable of learning at their own level when provided the appropriate supports and materials.