What is a Disability?

DisabilityI recently asked a question on a couple of Facebook groups that I belonged to. One group was about autism and the other about sarcoidosis. I asked members whether they identified as disabled. Interestingly, many of those with sarcoidosis did identify as having a disability, while most of those with autism did not, unless they had an additional physical disability or a mental illness.

It got me thinking about how we define disability. Some with depression would identify as disabled and some would not. Some with chronic pain would identify as disabled and some would not.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines disability as:

  1. any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
  2. a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  3. a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  4. a mental disorder, or
  5. an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.

This is a pretty extensive definition. It includes diabetes (which I sometimes have), which surprised me.

The World Health Organization gives this definition:

Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

The Americans With Disabilities Act gives this definition:

The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.

What is important to see is that having a disability is not identical with a medical diagnosis. Just having a diagnosis of depression or of autism or of sarcoidosis by itself doesn’t mean that one is disabled. Those diagnoses may lead to a disability but the diagnosis itself is not a disability.

I would suggest that a disability is any physical, developmental or mental/emotional condition that impairs activity that is typically experienced by their peers.

I can imagine some people not liking the negative aspect of that definition but that is intrinsic to anything with the prefix “dis-.” There is much that is positive and life-affirming about the experience of disability, but by definition it includes an inability to do something.

The bottom line is that it is up to the individual to determine how disability fits with their identity. If a deaf person doesn’t consider themselves disabled, respect that. If a depressed person considers themselves disabled, respect that. Both abilities and disabilities are often invisible and we shouldn’t be quick to judge.


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