What is Considered a Disability?

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a history or record of such an impairment(s) or something perceived by others as such an impairment(s).

Some examples of physical or cognitive conditions include orthopedic, visual, speech or 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 that describing a disability does not make a disability. Test anxiety is not currently considered a disability under the ADA. For more information, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM–5) is a good reference to use in understanding ADA-recognized disabilities.

For general information about disabilities you might want to consult this Disability Information and Resources webpage. 


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Types of Disabilities

According to DSM–5, Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history” (DSM-5, 2013, p. 53).

  1. Such deficits can be in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts including but are not limited to deficits in social and emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors, inability to develop, maintain and understand relationships.
  2. Deficits can also include, “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history including repetitive movements, inflexibility to change, restrictive and fixated interests, etc."

For more information please visit the Autistic Self Advocacy Network website.

According to DSM-5, “the essential feature of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 61).

ADHD is Characterized By:

  1. Inattention - the inability to concentrate, lacking focus and disorganization
  2. Hyperactivity - inappropriate constant movement including fidgeting, tapping, restlessness and persistent talking
  3. Impulsivity - making hasty decisions without thinking through a process, desire for immediate awards, getting into other’s space, etc.

For more information please visit the website for the National Institute of Mental Health. 

The term chronic health condition is defined as “any health condition, disorder, disability, illness, or syndrome that is experienced over an extended period of time and is not considered to be temporary in nature” (University of New Brunswick). Chronic health problems can include asthma, cancer, cerebral palsy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, heart conditions, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis and AIDS. Many of these disorders are considered to be hidden disabilities. Such health problems are considered disabilities according to the current Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (2008). 

For more information please visit the website for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. 

A communication disability includes an inability to comprehend, detect or apply language, and to speak in a way that allows for affective communication with others. Examples of such disorders include, “The communication disorders that have been outlined in the DSM-5 include the following: language disorder, speech sound disorder, childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering), pragmatic language impairment (social communication disorder), and other specified and unspecified communication disorders” (Psychology Today).

For more information please visit the website for Psychology Today. 

Deafness, Hard of Hearing, or Hearing Impairments may range from mild loss of hearing to total deafness. Deaf, Hard of Hearing or Hearing Impaired students often miss basic but vitally important information about life and events around them.

For more information please visit the website for Medical News Today.

Low vision is a condition caused by eye disease, in which visual acuity is 20/70 or poorer in the better-seeing eye and cannot be corrected or improved with regular eyeglasses.  Blindness is the lack of light and form perception. 

For more information please visit the Vision Aware website.

The term "learning disabilities" is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions which manifests by impeding one’s ability to read, compose or do mathematical equations. “Broadly speaking, these disorders involve difficulty in one or more, but not uniformly in all, basic psychological processes: (1) input (auditory and visual perception), (2) integration (sequencing, abstraction, and organization), (3) memory (working, short term, and long term memory), (4) output (expressive language), and (5) motor (fine and gross motor)” (Learning Disabilities of America). 

For more information please visit the Learning Disabilities Association of America. 

“Neurological disorders are diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system. In other words, the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves, nerve roots, autonomic nervous system, neuromuscular junction and muscles. These disorders include epilepsy, Alzheimer disease and other dementias, cerebrovascular diseases including stroke, migraine and other headache disorders, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, neuro-infections, brain tumors, traumatic disorders of the nervous system due to head trauma, and neurological disorders because of malnutrition. Visual perception - excellent vision but sees letters incorrectly; overlooks word endings, whole words, lines, or paragraphs” (World Health Organization, 2016.). 

For more information please visit the Disabled World website. 

Mood or emotional disabilities are a category of illnesses in which one’s emotions are distorted or inconsistent with one’s circumstances. This then interferes with an individual’s ability to function. Mood disorders can include major depressive disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, persistent depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder. 

For more information please visit Psycom.net. 

The Office of Accessibility Resources and Accommodations (ARA) can assist students who have experienced a temporary injury or condition which limits their daily activities. As with all students, each condition will be handled on a case by case basis. Such conditions include broken bones, conditions requiring surgery, pregnancy, concussions, etc. Should you find that you are suddenly injured, contact our office as soon as possible so that we can provide immediate accommodations. 


Ann Coburn-Collins, Director of Academic Support Programs
Wickes 260
(989) 964-7000

Shawn Wilson, Associate Director of Accessibility Resources and Accommodations
Wickes 260
(989) 964-7000

Debbi Abeare-Jacobs, Administrative Secretary
Wickes 260
(989) 964-7000