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What is Considered a Disability

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an individual with a disability is a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or
  • has a record of such an impairment, or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

Some examples (not limited to these) of physical or cognitive impairments are orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments; epilepsy, emotional illness, specific learning disabilities, and addictions (individuals who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs are not protected by the ADA).

Major life activities include functions such as performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

Please Note:

  • Describing a disability does not make a disability.
  • Test anxiety is not considered a disability under the ADA.

Types of Disabilities

 Cognitive Impairments

There are many disorders that present themselves as difficulties in processing information: in reading, writing, listening, speaking, organization, math calculation, problem solving, time management, or social skills. Often these deficits are lumped into the category of learning disabilities.


Some specific examples of problems:

  • Visual perception- excellent vision but sees letters incorrectly; overlooks word endings, whole words, lines, or paragraphs.

  • Auditory perception- normal hearing but difficulty differentiating between similar sounding words (ninety, nineteen); may be acutely sensitive to background noises; may be unable to catch subtleties in different tones of voice.

  • Spatial perception- may be unable to judge distances, differentiate between left and right, or follow directions to places.

  • Memory- difficulty retrieving information stored by the brain. Those with LD typically have more problems with short-term memory and may seem to struggle to retrieve names, dates, words, and facts just learned.

  • Sequencing- difficulty with order and arrangement of letters and numbers, following steps in sequence, organizing notes.

  • Dyslexia- The International Dyslexia Association defines it as “a neurologically-based, often familial, disorder which interferes with the acquisition and processing of language. It is manifested by difficulties in receptive and expressive language, including phonological processing, in reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, and sometimes in arithmetic.”

  • Attention Deficit Disorder- the inability to attend to selective stimuli within the environment and manifests as short attention span, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsivity, and sometimes restless behavior (hyperactivity).

  • Students with cognitive disabilities do well when instruction provides concrete information and discussions are specific, with real examples. They can succeed with appropriate accommodations.

Physical/Medical Disabilities

  • Poor gross motor coordination-can result in frequent bumping, falling, and general clumsiness.

  • Poor fine motor coordination-can result in poor handwriting and difficulty manipulating small objects.

  • Visual motor coordination problems make it difficult to respond to visual commands like taking notes from the board or overhead; cutting from a pattern, typing, or marking computer answer sheets.

  • Auditory motor problems interfere with following spoken directions or listening and taking notes at the same time.

  • Hearing disabilities may range from mild loss of hearing to total deafness. These students often miss basic but vitally important information about life and events around them.

  • Visual disabilities may be congenital or the result of a variety of causes. If visual acuity is no better than 20/70 (best correction), one is considered as having a visual disability. Legally blind is when visual acuity is no better than 20/200 (best correction). The major challenge is the overwhelming amount of printed information that confronts these students.

  • Many chronic diseases and medical conditions may affect a student's educational pursuits on a continuing or periodic basis. Some of the nonvisible disabilities include seizure disorders, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, traumatic head injuries, sickle cell anemia, cardiac conditions, kidney disease requiring dialysis, gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, cancer, hemophilia, lupus, MS, fibromyalgia, and AIDS.

  • Students with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorder or Environmental Illness face unique challenges. Chemicals used in cleansers, perfumes, hair sprays, some types of felt markers, etc. can seriously affect persons with this disorder. Faculty may need to encourage students in the class to avoid using hair sprays, perfumes or other chemicals on the days they have a class with these individuals. It may be necessary to move the class to a more ventilated room. Symptoms include headaches, breathing disorders, intestinal problems, memory loss, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, mental confusion, depression, and chronic exhaustion.


Invisible disability

People often ask what the term invisible disability means. To define invisible disability in simple terms is a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker. Unfortunately the very fact that these symptoms are invisible, can lead to misunderstandings,  false perceptions and judgments.

In addition, just because a person has a disability, does not mean they are disabled. Many living with these challenges are still fully active in their work, families, sports or hobbies. Some with disabilities are able to work full or part time, but struggle to get through their day, with little or no energy for other things.  Others are unable to maintain gainful or substantial employment due to their disability, have trouble with daily living activities and/or need assistance with their care. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) an individual with a disability is a person who: Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment (Disability Discrimination).

Furthermore, “A person is considered to have a disability if he or she has difficulty performing certain functions (seeing, hearing, talking, walking, climbing stairs and lifting and carrying), or has difficulty performing activities of daily living, or has difficulty with certain social roles (doing school work for children, working at a job and around the house for adults)”

The term invisible disabilities refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations and vary from person to person.

Also, someone who has a visible impairment or uses an assistive device such as a wheelchair, walker or cane can also have invisible disabilities. For example, whether or not a person utilizes an assistive device, if they are debilitated by such symptoms as described above, they live with invisible disabilities.


RESOURCES: Disabilities Affect One-Fifth of All Americans, 1997
Disability Discrimination
Americans with Disabilities
Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni and Friends International Disability Center.

Contact Us


Ann Coburn-Collins,
Director of Academic Support Programs

Wickes 260

Scott MacLeod
Assistant Director of Disability Services & Academic Support

Wickes 260

Deborah Rickert
Office Coordinator

Science East 201/Wickes 260