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Polyimpairment – between invisibility and humanity

“Something would be missing in our humanity if it gave up risking the bond with people with polyimpairment.”

-Antoine Cavalié

Polyimpairment is a condition that is often overlooked or misunderstood by the vast majority of people Understanding and describing polyimpairment can be a complex task, especially since no institutionalized definition exists in Quebec or Canada. However, Centre Philou is committed to developing research on this population and democratizing this knowledge to help practices evolve. The perpetual invisibility of people with polyimpairment in many spheres of society limits their ability to obtain care in line with the complexity of their needs, and consequently affects their standard of living.

This article looks at the definition of polyimpairment and the components of this reality. It looks at the myths associated with polyimpairment and the exceptionality of this population..

Definition & overview

Polyimpairment is a severe motor deficit resulting from early cerebral dysfunction, leading to reduced mobility and considerable restriction of autonomy, combined with intellectual disability. In addition to these two conditions, the associated difficulties vary from one person to another, and are closely intertwined. This coexistence of conditions creates a situation of extreme physical, psychological and social vulnerability.

Intellectual disability affects language development, spatial and temporal location, logical links between events or elements, problem-solving and short-term memory. On the other hand, motor deficiency affects global and fine motor skills, muscular strength, oral capacities, energy levels and speed of execution of certain tasks. People with multiple disabilities are totally dependent for all their day-to-day needs:eating, sleeping, dressing, getting around, hygiene care, medication, etc. They need assistance with both their vital needs and their personal development. Their potential is vast but is determined by the support they and their families receive.

Handicap, multihandicap or polyimpairment ?

The term “handicap” refers to an impairment that results in a significant and persistent disability. This motor, intellectual, speech, hearing, visual or other impairment is likely to cause obstacles in the performance of daily activities. Alternatively, the term “multihandicap” refers to being affected by more than one disability. These disabilities add up, but do not necessarily interact. For example, a multi-handicapped person may be blind and have one leg amputated. The two coexist, but do not exacerbate each other. On the other hand, people with polyimpairment experience a juxtaposition of disabilities. In other words, their disabilities multiply and worsen due to their multiplicity, making the person’s condition more complex. For example, an individual’s profound intellectual disability could prevent them from walking due to an inability to find one’s bearings in space, resulting in significant motor impairment.

Deconstructing myths

The world of polyimpairment is littered with myths based on erroneous preconceptions. Deconstructing them is essential to understanding their reality.

Polyimpaired people don't understand anything.

Intellectual disability doesn't negate a person's ability to understand words, facial expressions or even intonation. It's not difficult for them to understand whether someone likes them or not.

Polyimpaired people experience only difficulties.

The difficulties of people with multiple disabilities are accompanied by their strengths and abilities, just like any other person.

Polyimpaired people can't learn

When we get to know a person beyond their polyimpairment, great potential for learning is realized. We need to prioritize an environment conducive to the development of the person and their strengths.

The magic of the polyimpaired clientele

French philosopher Antoine Cavalié questions the principle of normality in human beings and the “abnormal” nature we associate with polyimparment. He explains: “Nature, in bringing these beings into being, surprises us and asks us: what is the basis of our common humanity, if it is not the resemblance of our bodies and their elementary capacities ? “.

The Centre Philou’s answer to this question is that our humanity is rooted in our vision of improving the quality of life of children and young adults with polyimpairment, as well as their families. Through an approach based on caring, collaboration, enjoyment, creativity, quality and innovation, we strive to breathe life into their days.

Cavalié sheds light on the beauty of the present moment experienced polyimpaired : “the shower can be a party, and the meal an ordeal […] caregivers develop a sensitivity to the intrigue of each day’s little challenges”. It’s not just a mouth to feed, a diaper to change and a body to wash – it’s about a relationship of listening and the building of an unparalleled complicity. People with polyimpairment make us proud with their everyday accomplishments, move us with their wonder at the trivial, and guide us through the complexity of their needs.

It's through simple, everyday gestures. A complicity in small moments. The pride of a tiny accomplishment. It doesn't matter what others think...Together, we stand together.


  • PhilouLAB – Campus Philou.
  • Cavalié, A. (2017). Chapitre 4. La rencontre avec la personne polyhandicapée : un regard philosophique. Dans : Philippe Camberlein éd., La personne polyhandicapée (pp. 131-141). Paris: Dunod.


Au nom des familles et de leurs enfants, au nom de de toute l’équipe qui travaille avec amour et ardeur au Centre Philou, nous vous remercions du fond du coeur de croire en nous, de nous donner le courage et l’énergie de continuer à grandir.


On behalf of the families and their children, on behalf of all the team members who work with love and ardor at Centre Philou, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for believing in us, for giving us the courage and energy to continue to grow.