What is Disability?

By | January 16, 2014

Disability is an umbrella term that refers to a condition that affects a person’s ability to go about their daily life. A disability affects one’s capacity to function with general tasks, communication, physical mobility, learning and/or interpersonal skills. Disability can also curtail one’s ability to fully participate in social, community, and civic life. Disability can affect a person in any of the following ways: developmental, cognitive, physical, sensory, mental, emotional, environmental or a combination thereof.

Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience disability (whether they identify it as such or not). As disability is a broad term it can encompass all of the following: broken leg, spinal cord injury, amputation, use of a wheelchair, acquired brain injury, stuttering, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning difficulties such as dyslexia, cancer, epilepsy, age related health issues, visual or hearing impairments, mental health, obesity, paralysis, depression, anxiety disorder, arthritis, cerebral palsy and more.

Disability can be temporary, permanent or episodic. A temporary disability could be breaking a leg and using crutches or a wheelchair for a short time. A permanent disability can be from birth or acquired later in life. An episodic disability is when someone experiences disability in fluctuating periods, these flares, in many cases, can be without pattern or predictability; examples can include: epilepsy, asthma, multiple sclerosis, depression, environmental sensitivities, and/or mental health issues.

There are visible disabilities and invisible disabilities. A visible disability is one which is obvious because of a visual cue such as a cane, a wheelchair, or a guide dog. Invisible disabilities affect people but are not visible to the eye. Some invisible disabilities only become evident overtime or do not become apparent until an interaction reveals it such as when there is the need for written communication with someone who has a learning difficulty. People with invisible disabilities often experience additional limitations due to people who do not believe their disability is real because it cannot be seen.

Disability is a term that applies to one’s limitations in daily life but there are instances when someone has no functional limitations but other people’s misperceptions push disability onto them. This often occurs through social interaction. An example could be a person with a facial disfigurement who does not have any limitations or a person who is an amputee but with of the use of a prosthetic has no functional limitation and yet people’s interactions with them become disabling because people perceive the person differently, as less, and/or in a limiting way which places unnecessary restrictions on them. Another example is when someone is in remission following something like cancer and people continue to treat the person as if they were in the midst of their health issue which can place unnecessary limitations on the person. Oftentimes people’s perceptions can be more limiting to those with disabilities than their actual or perceived disability.

Some people give a lot of weight to the word “disability” but it is simply a designation, much like gender, nationality, and sexuality. It is a part of the person but not the whole of the person. Having a disability is a part of my life but it does not wholly define me or my abilities. It is a designation that can be used on a form for medical or governmental reasons but it is not a word that defines me completely as a person.

Disability should not be a scary word. It should not be a word that people feel ashamed to apply to themselves. It should not be a word that people refer to in a negative or condescending way. It is simply a part of life and we should keep in mind that every person will experience disability at some point. We should accept the word as part of life and work to improve the current social and physical limitations which create unnecessary barriers and result in more disability. With awareness, education and effort these social and physical barriers can be broken down and the use of the designation of disability will be less necessary. The first step towards this is understanding what disability is. I hope this post has helped you to understand the basic definition of disability.