Definition of Disability

What Do We Mean By Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment and public access.  To have a disability under the ADA, a candidate for employment or a current employee must have a physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  Other means of coverage under the law exist, but they would not normally impact a candidate for employment who is taking an assessment.

The ADA defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  However, it need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability. Some impairments are serious enough to be assumed to be disabilities, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis or HIV+ status. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is made regardless of the effect of medical intervention, using assistive technology, implementing reasonable accommodations or learned/adaptive behavior.  Glasses or contact lenses are the only medical mitigating devices that can be considered in evaluating whether one is disabled under the ADA.

Not all impairments are easy to identify.  While some conditions are visible, there are many that are not so visible or obvious. Where a candidate has a disability that is not obvious, an interviewer or a person administering an assessment should not ask about potential disabilities.  At the pre-employment stage, all one can ask the candidate is whether he or she can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

Areas of Disability

As we have seen, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) describes how a disability may be defined.  It does not set out in detail all disabilities/impairments that would fall within the definition of a disability.  We will focus on five core areas of disability. Please click on the text below to view more details about each area.

  • In the United States the American Psychiatric Association has helped define mental disorders since 1917. More recently, many have recognized that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. Mental health conditions are clinical disorders such as extreme fears (phobias), schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression and anxiety (general anxiety is not a disability, but an identifiable anxiety disorder is). These conditions can be severe and long-lasting and may have a significant impact on a person’s ability to lead a typical lifestyle. The symptoms may occur intermittently or only in certain circumstances. They may also be managed with long-term medication or therapy. Mental health disorders may co-occur with additional disabilities such as a physical disability or chronic health condition such as Cancer.

  • American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) defines a learning disability as a reduced intellectual ability causing difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socializing or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.  Intellectual disability (also known as Learning Disabilities and Cognitive Disabilities) is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. Read more

  • Hearing is a complex sense involving both the ear’s ability to detect sounds and the brain’s ability to interpret those sounds, including the sounds of speech.  Common terms used include hard of hearing and deafness.  The definition of hearing loss is not the same for everybody and the different degrees of hearing loss are divided into categories.  The most common categories of hearing loss are mild hearing loss, moderate hearing loss, severe hearing loss and profound hearing loss. Read more

  • Visual impairments cover a range of disability including color blindness, moderate sight loss and total blindness. Visual impairment, or low vision, means that even with eyeglasses, contact lenses, medicine or surgery, vision is impaired.  Vision impairment can range from mild to severe. Read more

  • There are a wide range of disabilities/impairments covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); you can find more examples at www.ada.gov or www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm.