Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

What Is Disability

Depending on where you are, and who you ask, you may get different answers to the question “what is disability.” 

The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a mental or physical impairment impacting one or more daily life activities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) defines it as a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which, in interaction with various barriers, may impact your participation in society on an equal basis with others .

The U.S. Social Security Act says that it is a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that is expected to last more than 12 months or result in death and that makes it impossible for the individual to engage in substantial gainful activity. 

These varying definitions show that disability is a real physical or mental phenomenon that is also partially a social construction. The specifics, such as whether the condition has to be medically determined, whether it must be long-term or can be temporary, whether activities of daily living include involuntary functions like processing insulin, and whether it exists by itself or in relation to social barriers depend on the context.

We will consider six different types of disability, though these categories are not agreed on.

  • People with physical disabilities experience all of those impairments that impact movement, both the ability to walk as well as other motor functions like writing. It may include a complete inability to walk, but it can also include a partial inability to walk, or mere difficulty with long distances. Examples include cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury or muscular dystrophy.
  • People with auditory disabilities experience varying levels of difficulty hearing, from complete deafness to partial hearing loss. Changes in technology and culture have resulted in a greater number of individuals using cochlear implants or hearing aids. Some are signers, others are oral, and others are a mix.
  • People with visual disabilities experience varying levels of vision loss. Some are completely blind while most possess some residual vision. People who are blind or low vision may have conditions like glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa or Usher syndrome.
  • People with chronic health disabilities experience limits in different areas of bodily function. Common examples of chronic health disabilities include diabetes, Crohn’s disease, kidney disease or long covid.
  • People with learning disabilities encounter varying difficulties with the learning process, though they are able to master intellectual skills. Examples include ADHD, dyslexia or dysgraphia.
  • People with intellectual disabilities may struggle with mental processing, and they may experience barriers to acquiring certain intellectual skills. Examples of intellectual disability include Down syndrome.


Different definitions of disability can also reflect different ways of thinking about disability, known as models. If you are following the exchange professionals pathway, or if you’re just curious, feel free to go to the next page to read about the models of disability.

This article is part of the International Education Professional Pathway.

Previous: International Education Professional Pathway Trailhead Next: Models of disability

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