What is a Disability?

Student laughing in autumn scene

There is no one way to define a disability. The definition of a disability depends on who you ask, why you are asking, and the context in which you are asking. There are many lenses through which to view and understand disability. However, the most important thing you can do to better understand disability is to get to know people with disabilities. Learn more about their stories and their experiences. Listen to their perspectives and understandings.  Pay attention to their barriers and experiences with ableism.  

Understanding disability requires a complex consideration of a variety of factors. As stated within the World Health Organization (WHO) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health Practical Manual, “The functioning of an individual in a specific domain reflects an interaction between the health condition and the contextual: environmental and personal factors. There is a complex, dynamic and often unpredictable relationship among these entities.” (World Health Organization. How to use the ICF: A practical manual for using the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). Exposure draft for comment. October 2013. Geneva: WHO.) As highlighted, any understanding of disability needs to be centered within this dynamic and often changing interaction between an individual (identities, impairments, personal goals, strengths, etc.) and the environment (physical and digital space, culture of inclusivity, accessibility, barriers, practices, etc.).

Disability within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

The most common definition used within higher education is the definition outlined within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This definition was clarified by ADA.gov. They defined disability as:  

A person with a disability is someone who: 

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, 
  • has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or 
  • is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn). (ADA.gov - Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act)

While other definitions may address the contextual and environmental aspects of disability in more robust ways, this definition is important because it is used to determine if someone is eligible for things like accommodations.