What Exactly is the Definition of Disability?

So often people use terms freely and quickly without even considering if the word in use means the same thing to all people. A quick Google search reveals that the definition of disability lacks simplicity and consistency. Here is a survey of various. definitions.  Far from simple.

Dictionary Definition of Disability

By far, the simplest definition of disability comes from the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines disability as:

: a condition (such as an illness or an injury) that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities

: the condition of being unable to do things in the normal way: the condition of being disabled

: a program that provides financial support to a disabled person

American with Disabilities Association DA Definition of Disability

It is important to remember that in the context of the ADA, disability is a legal term rather than a medical one.

A person with a disability is 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.

Social Security Administration Definition of Disability

The definition of disability under Social Security is different than other definitions because it determines who qualifies for Social Security Disability benefits.

To meet our definition of disability, you must not be able to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) because of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment(s):

  • That is expected to result in death, or
  • That has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.

The Social Security Administration uses the term “substantial gainful activity” to describe a level of work activity and earnings.

Work is “substantial” if it involves doing significant physical or mental activities or a combination of both. For work activity to be substantial, it does not need to be performed on a full-time basis. Work activity performed on a part-time basis may also be SGA.

“Gainful” work activity is:

  • Work performed for pay or profit; or
  • Work of a nature generally performed for pay or profit; or
  • Work intended for profit, whether or not a profit is realized.

Who Has The Last Say on The Definition Of Disability?

“Hello, I’m calling to request proof of disability that I filed when I was on Social Security.”

“What do you mean when you WERE on Social Security?”

“I’m no longer receiving benefits because I’m working full time.”

“Then why do you need proof of disability? If you’re working, you are no longer disabled.”

“……. (( um….. what??? )) ……”

The above phone call actually happened between the Social Security office and Wheeler Wife, which is related in the blog Rolling Without Limits.

It begs the question. Who tells who who is disabled or not? Who has the authority and right to determine the definition of disability?

Definition of Disability by People with Disabilities

I am vocal about having a disability because I don’t want other people defining what having a disability means for me. Whether you’re active most days, or spend most of your time in bed, you have the right to define that for yourself.     -Maya Brown-Zimmerman

There are many things I can do that I enjoy, things that bring me great pleasure such as writing, but I envy the freedom of choice that able people have.  I don’t have that and I haven’t had it for as long as I can remember, even if I look like I could.

I didn’t choose this life but it is the life I have so please do not discount it.

So, how do you define disability now?     -Claire Barnier

You personally can’t define your disability. Your body does. Whether it be a mental or a physical illness, it’s your body that leads the way and you have no choice but to follow. I could fight my illness as long as I want, but at the end of the day I’m going to still have trouble living a “normal” life. I have no choice but to live with a bunch of medication in my pocket and a thing that I have to check my blood sugar with once a day. I’m no longer free to do whatever I want.     -ottobot93

 In Conclusion

Of course there are reasons for every definition listed above. Each person, organization, or entity defines disability within the context of what aspect of disability each is attempting to address.

Nonetheless, we end with the most uplifting of definitions. It was written by Wheeler Wife on the same website where her phone call with the Social Security Administration was related above. Her definition of disability reads:

Empowered, Strong, Valued, Unique, Beautiful, Interesting, are just some of the ways I would describe the members of the disabled community. It is more important than ever to remember that the more we use positive labels, the greater the influence we can make on the definition of disability.