What is considered a disability? Drawings of smiling disabled people: neurodivergent woman, woman with a cane, blind man, deaf man with hearing aid, woman in wheelchair, man with NG tube. By Rob Akins edited by Jenna Breunig

Definitions: What is Considered a Disability?

Many groups use different disability definitions, from legal ones to medical ones. It can be tricky to define exactly what counts.

Getting to know the different perspectives can help. Today, let’s talk about how different groups describe disability.

How Do We Define Disability?

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Created in 1965, the EEOC enforces anti-discrimination laws at work. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed. After that, EEOC began protecting disabled workers too.

According to the EEOC, not every medical condition is a disability. To be considered a disability, it must involve one or more of these:

  1. A physical or mental condition that limits major life activities like:
    • Walking
    • Talking
    • Hearing
    • Seeing
    • Learning
  2. A history of disability, like cancer in remission.
  3. A serious physical or mental impairment lasting over 6 months.

Blind and deaf people are clearly disabled. But not everyone is clear about what a learning disability is.

Learning disabilities include things like dyslexia, ADHD, and auditory processing disorder. They can make it harder for someone to read, focus, manage time, and do other tasks. Since these are important skills too, learning disabilities are real disabilities.

“Mental impairment” means something that affects intellect or development. For example, someone with Down syndrome counts as disabled because their IQ is lower. Tasks like driving and telling time are hard or impossible. Also, an autistic person is disabled too. Even if they’re a genius, their social and self-care skills are slow or limited.

Washington Group on Disability Statistics

The Washington Group (WG), founded in 2001, surveys disability. They consider disability an umbrella term. It involves impairment, activity limits, or participation limits.

Disabled people have limited access to work, school, and/or social opportunities. If the person would have this problem in any country, then they count as disabled.

United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

Here’s what the CRPD says:

Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

UNCRPD, 2006

The CRPD considers disability to be long-term. After all, having a broken arm is different from having no arms.

They also say “full and effective participation” is important. Even if the disability isn’t obvious to others, it still exists. For example, if one person has a short leg, they might be able to do some things. Still, some athletic activities might be impossible. That’s a disability.

The CRPD aims to protect many people with its disability definition. This way, they don’t leave out any disabled people by accident.

Social Security Qualifications

Some disabled people can get help from the US government. Because this costs money, the rules are stricter. After all, help should only go to those who need it.

Social Security says a child is disabled if a mental or physical condition causes serious functional limits. Some disabled kids might not meet this.

An adult counts as disabled if:

  • The impairment will probably last at least 12 months or result in death
  • The person can’t do the same work they used to do because of it
  • The person can’t adjust to other work because of it

This means that people don’t qualify if they can still do some type of work. For example, an injured former athlete who works in an office won’t get benefits.

Social Security is strict for a reason. Above all, they want to make sure that money only goes to people who need it.

Also, they don’t help people with short-term problems. In these cases, they expect people to use their savings or a different aid program.

US Census Bureau

The census bureau counts people for statistics. Counting disabled people helps make sure there are enough services.

Matthew Brault (2012) writes about the difference in how medical and federal groups think of disability. Medical models call disability a problem that needs treatment or therapy. Meanwhile, federal programs focus on the person’s need for programs like social security.

The International Classification of Functioning (ICF) describes it differently. They say disability limits activities, abilities, and participation. Also, disability isn’t black and white. Instead, they see it as a gradient affected by personal and environmental factors.

That means someone can be disabled in certain situations but not others. For example, someone with dyslexia might find it hard to read and easy to chat.

Danielle Taylor’s 2018 report also includes a disability definition. Taylor writes that disability includes impairments, activity limits, and participation restrictions. These must affect people’s daily lives.

This is broad, but it also sets a high bar. The condition must affect daily life. That way, simple things like mild nearsightedness don’t count. A disabled person is someone who doesn’t get equal chances in life.

Taylor also looks at 2 types of disability: severe and not severe. While both types are disabilities, people need different levels of help. People with non-severe disabilities could be mostly independent. People with severe disabilities might need to depend on others.

National Center for Health Statistics

Gerry Hendershot described problems with defining disability in 2002. The way we view disability is changing.

People used to see disabled people as diseased or broken. This was deeply stigmatizing. Now people are starting to consider disability to be related to discrimination. They say it’s a deficit in how the community includes people.

The old way of thinking focused on getting rid of disability using medical means. The new way focuses on getting rid of disability by letting everyone participate. This is the “social model of disability.”

The problem is still the same: society shuts out people with certain limitations. Getting rid of limitations isn’t always possible. Now, people are starting to focus on how to let disabled people in.

This opens more doors. Under the old way of thinking, if someone couldn’t walk, they should get surgery or intense therapy. If that didn’t work, that was it.

However, under the social model, buildings should have elevators and ramps. More problems can be solved. Now people can participate even if there is no “cure.”

Conclusion: Disability Definitions Vary

What is considered a disability? It depends on who you ask. Someone could count as disabled under one definition but not another.

The definitions share a few common threads.

Disability is a long-term condition. Short-term injuries and illnesses don’t count. Usually, it’s expected to last at least a year.

Severity also matters in defining disability. For example, a slightly clumsy person isn’t disabled. However, someone who struggles with daily life tasks is. If they need outside support, they’re disabled.

The new way of thinking tries to get rid of barriers, not conditions. This makes a big difference for people with lifelong conditions. It also fights stigma. The person isn’t responsible for their disability. Instead, society is responsible for letting them in.

This means that disabled people shouldn’t be second-class citizens anymore. The community must try to include them.

Also, some people may hesitate to say they’re disabled. Because of stigma and poor understanding, someone might not call it a disability. They might think it’s a bad label. This means they might not get counted.

The amount of disabled people depends a lot on who is counting. The different definitions mean that you can end up with very different numbers.

Disability definitions vary. Choose how to describe it based on what you want to do with your data.

Above all, people need to make sure that disabled people are counted and included. Everyone deserves fair chances in life. The first step in helping them is finding them.

by Rob Akins, edited by Jenna Breunig

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