A disability may be something that you are born with, or it may develop later in life. You may also become disabled due to circumstances that are entirely beyond your control: a stroke, a car accident, or an illness. Disabilities include both physical and mental impairments, meaning they affect a part of the body or the way the brain functions. Nearly 20% of the U.S. population was estimated to have a disability in 2010. If you are living with a disability, you are not alone.


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What is a disability?

A disability is any physical or mental condition that substantially affects day-to-day life. A disability may be congenital, meaning that an individual was born with their disability as a result of a chromosomal or genomic abnormality, genetic neurological disorder, infection, or exposure to alcohol or drugs. Other disabilities develop over time as the result of an injury or illness that occurs later in life or as the result of an experience (post-traumatic stress disorder, for example).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability must limit at least one major life activity or bodily function including, but not limited to, sleeping, hearing, walking, speaking, seeing, breathing, eating, learning, reading, thinking, and taking care of oneself. Some people with disabilities may not be able to work or live alone, while others function perfectly well with medicine, therapy, or assistive devices. Assistive devices can range from wheelchairs, canes, and prosthetics to cognitive assistance software, service animals, and noise machines. Assistive devices are intended to help a person with a disability live as comfortably as possible. Sometimes, because of the aid of an assistive device or another reason, disabilities can be easily perceived by other people. Other disabilities (many learning disabilities, for example) go unseen by strangers, but that does not make them any less real to the person experiencing them.

There is no exclusive list of conditions that are defined as disabilities under the ADA; “disability” is used as a legal term, not a medical term, and under the ADA definition and for the purposes of clarity, a person with a disability may have a physical impairment, a mental impairment, or both.

  • Note: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects K–12 students and mandates that all public agencies, including schools, ensure that children with disabilities have access to intervention, special education, and services related to their disability. For the purposes of IDEA, a disability must adversely affect a student’s performance in school. For more information about IDEA and your rights as a K–12 student, read this article.

In your further research, you may come across other more specialized terms. Sensory impairments, for example, refer to any disabilities that affect any of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and/or spatial awareness) and can be further broken down into visual impairments and hearing impairments, among others. While these impairments can be grouped into the ADA’s definition, these terms are still very important because they allow people to talk about their specific needs and experiences. In fact, most people will classify their own disabilities much less generally than the ADA’s umbrella terms (e.g., a hearing impairment or a learning difficulty) or very specifically (e.g., deafness or dyslexia), and it should be noted that there is no lived experience that all people with disabilities share, even if they have the same condition.

What is a physical impairment?

A physical impairment is anything that affects the physical body. This could be a neurological illness (such as epilepsy), an immune disorder (such as HIV or AIDS), blindness or partial blindness, deafness or partial deafness, or the loss of a body part. Anything that affects one of the body systems is also considered a physical impairment. The affected organs and system may include: brain; muscles; skeleton; lungs and breathing; heart, blood, and circulation; the endocrine system; lymph nodes; the immune system; stomach and intestines; reproductive organs; urinary tract; anything affecting the function of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or the sense of touch; and skin.

  • The most obvious physical impairments are those that affect an individual’s movement and require the individual to use a wheelchair, prosthetic limb, or crutches. However, physical impairments include diseases and genetic conditions that may be invisible to the naked eye, such as migraines, thyroid disorders, and heart disease.
  • Arguably, pregnancy could be considered a physical impairment, but as it is short-term and doesn’t significantly impede normal functions, it does not fit the criteria for a disability. However, if there were complications from a pregnancy, and as a result, an individual no longer has normal urinary function and needs to carry a colostomy bag for the rest of her life, for example, that would be considered a disability.

What is a mental impairment?

A mental impairment is anything that affects an individual’s level of intelligence or life skills. These are chronic, lifelong impairments, but with special education and/or therapy, individuals can learn the life skills (both social and practical) that are necessary to function in day-to-day life. Both intellectual and learning disabilities are considered mental impairments as an individual is either functioning below their age level or has trouble learning the material that should be accessible at their grade level. Mental impairments may also encompass mental illnesses (including alcoholism), behavioral disorders (e.g., ADHD, PTSD, or an emotional disorder), and chronic organic brain syndrome (decreased mental function as the result of a stroke, brain trauma, infection, or degenerative disease).

Individuals may not be born with mental impairments, though some are congenital. The symptoms of schizophrenia, for example, typically begin to show between age 15 and age 25. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 75% of all mental illnesses develop by the age of 24. These disorders may also include anxiety, major depressive disorder, manic depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, an individual may develop a mental impairment as the result of an accident, stroke, or heart attack. These may affect the brain in such a way that an individual suffers from memory loss or loss of mental function.

Regardless of when the impairment develops, if it significantly impacts an individual’s ability to perform a major life activity, it qualifies as a disability under the ADA, even if it is controlled by medication.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a type of mental impairment that inhibits traditional learning methods. Students with learning disabilities may have trouble reading, comprehending what they read or hear, spelling, writing, solving math problems, developing reasoning skills, speaking, or remembering previously learned information. Having a learning disability does not indicate that a student has a lower than average IQ, simply that the student has trouble keeping up with their classmates because of the way their brain is wired. While learning disabilities cannot be cured, students with learning disabilities can learn techniques to deal with their academic weaknesses and achieve academic success with the help of alternative teaching methods.

Common learning disabilities include:

  • Auditory Processing Disorder: A disability characterized by difficulty associating sounds to their meaning; this can be specific to language (language processing disorder) or involve all sounds that an individual hears.
  • Dyscalculia: A disability characterized by difficulty solving math problems and understanding the associated concepts.
  • Dysgraphia: A disability characterized by difficulty writing by hand, difficulty spelling, or both.
  • Dyslexia: A disability characterized by difficulty reading, resulting in difficulty comprehending written material.
  • Nonverbal Learning Disability: A disability characterized by high verbal skills but low social skills and low fine motor skills as well as trouble interpreting visual cues, trouble changing routine, and trouble following directions.
  • Visual Processing Disorder: A disability characterized by difficulty interpreting visual stimulation. Coloring within the lines may prove difficult, letters of similar shape may be confused when reading or writing (p and q or d and b, for example), or visual memory may be impaired.

Some students who suffer from learning disabilities may also struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but neither of these disorders constitutes a learning disability.

Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) a learning disability?

Technically no, but ASD can go hand in hand with learning disabilities. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ASD is characterized by four things:

  • Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others
  • Repetitive behaviors as well as limited interests or activities
  • Symptoms that typically are recognized in the first two years of life
  • Symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life

Not all individuals diagnosed with ASD are going to have the same level of impairment or even display all of the same symptoms since ASD covers a broad range of developmental disorders. However, individuals with ASD are protected under the ADA (provided their diagnosis substantially limits at least one major life activity) and are guaranteed intervention, special education, and services under IDEA.

Does an impairment that is chronic, but episodic fulfill the requirements of a disability?

Yes, if your condition is chronic or recurring and limits at least one major life activity when it flares up, it counts as a disability regardless of whether you are currently experiencing symptoms. This includes conditions such as epilepsy, cancer (including when it is in remission, if there is the possibility that it will reoccur), diabetes, bipolar disorder, asthma, and major depressive disorder.

Does an impairment that is managed fulfill the requirements of a disability?

Yes, regardless of any actions you are taking to mitigate your impairment (taking medication, attending therapy sessions, using a prosthetic limb or mobility aid, using a hearing aid, partnering with a service animal, or using assistive technology), it still counts as a disability. Under the ADA, any good side effects of your management techniques are not to be considered when deciding whether or not a condition is a disability. Negative side effects may be taken into consideration.

There is one exception: individuals who wear corrective contact lenses or glasses and are not significantly limited in the life activity of seeing when wearing their eyewear are not considered to have a disability. However, if the contact lenses or glasses cannot correct an individual’s vision enough to make seeing feasible, they are considered to have a disability.

What does not count as a disability?

Any condition that is temporary, short, and nonrecurring (the common cold, the flu, or a sprained wrist, for example) is not considered a disability. Neither are lifestyle choices; unsafe sexual practices, illegal drug use, and gambling are not considered disabilities, even though they may have an effect on an individual’s life activities.

Page last updated: 04/2017