Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is one who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or
  • has a history of such an impairment; or
  • is perceived or “regarded as” having such an impairment, even when the impairment does not exist.

There are some important components to this three-part definition. The phrase major life activities means functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Substantially limits means unable to perform a major life activity, or significantly restricted in the condition, manner, or duration it can be performed, when compared to most people in the general population.

Disability impacts people’s lives in a wide variety of ways, and the level of impact can range from minimal to extensive. In some cases, a person’s disability is a minor inconvenience, something that is controlled through medication, or requires some simple adaptations. In other cases, a person’s disability plays a major role in their lives, impacting their ability to earn a living, to participate in activities in the community, and to do many of the things that many non-disabled people take for granted in their daily lives.

Disabilities are often not apparent. Learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis are just a few of the many disabilities that are often “hidden.” Never presume that someone doesn’t have a disability just because it is not readily apparent.

Disability is a natural part of the human existence. There has been a major shift in our society’s view of disability. Disability used to be seen as an aberration, something that had to be “fixed” before a person could fully participate in their community. A more progressive view is that disability is simply part of a person’s identity, not something to be fixed, and that people with disabilities have the same right as anyone else to full participation in society.

Types of Disabilities:

There are several types of disabilities that may be classified into the following groups of impairments:
Visual Impairments: Visual impairments represents a continuum, from people with very poor vision, to people who can see light but no shapes, to people who have no perception of light at all. However, this population is thought of as representing two broad groups: those with low vision and those who are legally blind. A person is considered legally blind when their visual acuity is 20/200 or worse after correction, or when their field of vision is less than 20 degrees. Diseases causing severe visual impairments are common in those who are aging such as glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

Physical Impairments:  Problems faced by individuals with physical impairments include poor muscle control, weakness and fatigue, difficulty walking, talking, seeing, speaking, sensing or grasping (due to pain or weakness), difficulty reaching things, and difficulty doing complex or compound manipulations (push and turn). Individuals with spinal cord injuries may be unable to use their limbs and may use “mouthsticks” for most manipulations. Twisting motions may be difficult or impossible for people with many types of physical disabilities (including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, etc.).

Hearing Impairments: Hearing impairment means any degree and type of auditory disorder, while deafness means an extreme inability to discriminate conversational speech through the ear. People who are Deaf, then, are those who cannot use their hearing for communication. A person is usually considered hard of hearing when sound must reach at least 90 decibels (5 to 10 times louder than normal speech) to be heard.

Cognitive/Language Impairments:  Cognitive impairments can vary widely from severe retardation to inability to remember, to the absence of impairment of specific cognitive functions (most particularly, language). These impairments may be categorized as memory, perception, problem-solving, and conceptualizing disabilities.

Memory Problems include difficulty getting information from short-term storage, long term and remote memory.  This includes difficulty recognizing and retrieving information.

Perception problems include difficulty taking in, attending to, and discriminating sensory information.

Problem-solving includes difficulty recognizing the problem, identifying, choosing and implementing solutions, and evaluation of outcome.

Conceptualizing includes problems in sequencing, generalizing previously learned information, categorizing, cause and effect, abstract concepts, comprehension and skill development.