Disability is a potentially limiting reduction in the normal functioning of the human body. Disabilities can influence both the physical and mental wellbeing of a person, and they can have a serious impact on self-esteem and social adjustment.

What Is Disability?

What Are Various Types of Disability?

Disability may be physical, mental, or psychological. Examples of physical disability include those resulting from blindness or from amputation of a limb. Examples of mental disability are intellectual disability and disability resulting from an exposure to toxic substances such as lead or other hazardous chemicals. Examples of psychological disability are severe depression or chronic anxiety. Some types of disability can result from a combination of mental and physiological limitations, such as certain learning disabilities.

Examples of Physical Disabilities

People can be born with a physical disability. When they are, the problem is called a congenital (kon-JEH-nih-tul) disability. In many cases, the cause of a congenital disability is unknown. Some congenital disabilities with known causes such as inherited disabilities (which are disabilities that are the result of genetic * disorders, such as cystic fibrosis * ) and exposure of the mother to disease, alcohol, drugs, harmful medications, pollutants, or chemicals during pregnancy, or either parent before pregnancy. For example, a mother who has German measles * early in her pregnancy may deliver a child who is deaf or who has other birth defects.

Disability need not prevent a person from living a full and complete life.

Disability need not prevent a person from living a full and complete life.
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Examples of Mental Disabilities

Individuals who have mental disability may speak and move slowly, and may have difficulty interacting with others. In addition, they may learn and comprehend information at a different rate than those without mental disability. Behavioral problems and learning difficulties can coincide with mental disability. Often these individuals benefit from specialized teaching methods and one-to-one interaction. Individuals may have mental disability as a result of complications during birth, such as a low oxygen supply, which can lead to brain damage and intellectual disability. Others may experience mental disability later in life from exposure to certain drugs or other hazardous chemicals, leading to changes in brain function. Those with mental disability may have varied levels of intellect as a result of different degrees of intellectual disability.

Examples of Psychological Disabilities

Severe depression, bipolar disorder, chronic anxiety and schizophrenia are all types of psychological disability. Those with psychological disability generally have biochemical characteristics in their brains that differ from individuals without psychological disability, causing them to think and act in a different ways than people who do not experience psychological disability. These individuals often benefit from medication and therapy from a trained professional such as a psychologist * or psychiatrist * . Psychological disability affects children, as well as adult populations, and may be short term; however, many psychological disabilities are chronic * in nature.

What Is the Connection between Disability and Self-Image?

Self-image is the mental picture people have of themselves, including their external appearance, intellectual abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This mental picture begins in infancy and continues to develop throughout the lifespan. A person's self image develops through interactions with other people and the world around them. When disabled individuals experience negative reactions from others, they may internalize that negative judgment and develop a poor self-image. Because self-esteem (the value people place on the mental image of themselves) is strongly linked to self-image, disabled individuals may be more likely to suffer from low self-esteem as well as a poor self-image.

What Effect Does the Onset of Disability Have?


Nondisabled people are often uninformed about the actual nature of a disabled person's life. People with disabilities frequently encounter falsehoods including the following:

Myth: Disabled people are usually intellectually disabled. Reality: Most disabilities do not affect intelligence. Myth: Disabled people are sick.

Reality: Illness is not the same as disability. Some people are disabled with chronic illness, whereas others are healthy.

Myth: People with disabilities can never have a good quality of life.

Reality: Quality of life is mainly determined by the disabled person's character and by the degree of social acceptance that person experiences rather than on the disability itself.

Myth: People with disabilities need continuous supervision and cannot lead independent lives.

Reality: The degree of independence a person achieves depends on the nature of the disability, the person's education and training, and the accommodations that are available to make independent living physically possible.

Myth: People with disabilities are especially noble, brave, and courageous for coping with their handicaps.

Reality: There are all kinds of people with disabilities. Most disabled people carry on with their lives just as nondisabled people do.

Disability may also arise as a result of an unexpected and sudden incident later in life, such as a car accident or a machinery accident in the workplace. This type of disability is called an acquired disability. People who acquire disabilities later in life have a different experience from those who are born with a disability. These people have lost some aspect of their self that played a part in their development of their self-image, whether it is the loss of an arm or leg, or the loss of an ability to perform a particular activity. People with acquired disabilities tend to feel an array of emotions, such as grief, denial, anger, and depression, as they learn to adapt and work out a new way to live. Many individuals rely on artificial limbs or specialized machinery, such as electric wheelchairs, to assist them with activities of daily living. Over time, these individuals adapt to their acquired disability to varying degrees.

* or Alzheimer's disease * , may lead to mental or physical disability over time.

What Are the Connections between Disability and Health?

Many physicians and mental health practitioners agree there is a connection between mental health and physical well-being. In general, the better a person's self-image and self-esteem, the more able a person is to cope with various changes and challenges, and the better a person feels both mentally and physically.

Many studies have found that people with disabilities experience psychological problems (especially depression and anxiety) and behavior problems at about twice the rate of the nondisabled individuals. Family members of people with disabilities are also more likely to experience emotional problems brought on by the extra responsibilities, financial burden, and limitations of caring for someone with a disability. Although chronic illness and disability include the risk of psychological problems, many individuals and families learn to cope with these conditions.

In 1996 the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed many studies of people with disabilities and concluded that certain risk factors increase the chance that people with disabilities will experience psychological problems. Other factors appear to decrease the chance that a person with a disability will have psychological problems. Risk factors that increase the likelihood of psychological problems include the following:

Factors that decrease the likelihood of psychological problems include the following:

What Role Does the Community Play?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law intended to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream society. The Act requires that disabled people be provided with access to public and private spaces, with workplace accommodations, and, whenever possible, be included in mainstream public education. Although physical accommodations, such as wheelchair-accessible restrooms or Braille instructions for the blind on automatic teller machines, are common in new buildings, many older facilities and private spaces have not been renovated to accommodate people with physical disabilities. Employers are increasingly willing to make workplace accommodations for people with physical disabilities, but they are sometimes reluctant to make such arrangements for people with mental or psychological disabilities. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities, especially women, is very high, and many people with disabilities are employed at jobs below their skill levels. Service industries hire more people with disabilities than any other type of employer.

People with disabilities face some common challenges. At the same time, disabled people are individuals with differing personalities and needs. As mentioned, people who are born with a disability may have self-image issues that are different from those of people who acquire a disability later in life. Someone who is confined to a bed with a chronic, long-term illness faces challenges that are different from someone who is healthy but who has a disability such as blindness or intellectual disability. The challenge is to see people with disabilities as individuals, each with his or her own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and dreams, regardless of each person's type of disability.

See also Blindness • Chronic Illness • Deafness and Hearing Loss • Intellectual Disability


Books and Articles

Batshaw, Mark, Nancy Roizen, and Gaetano Lotrecchiano, eds. Children with Disabilities. 7th ed. Baltimore, MD: Brookes, 2012.

“Global Disability.” Economist, June 20, 2015. Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21654565global-disability (accessed December 4, 2015).


Shinn, Christopher. “Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor.” Atlantic, July 23, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/why-disabled-characters-are-never-played-by-disabled-actors/374822/ (accessed December 4, 2015).

Social Security Administration. “Frequently Asked Questions: Disability.” https://faq.ssa.gov/link/portal/34011/34019/ArticleFolder/417/Disability (accessed December 4, 2015).


American Academy of Pediatrics. 141 Nw Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098. Toll-free: 800-433-9016. Website: http://www.aap.org (accessed December 4, 2015).

American Association of People with Disabilities. 2013 H St. NW, 5th Fl., Washington, DC 20006. Toll-free: 800-840-8844. Website: http://www.aapd.com/ (accessed December 4, 2015).

Center for Disability Information and Referral, Indiana University Bloomington. 1905 N Range Rd., Bloomington, IN 47408. Tollfree: 800-437-7924. Website: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/cedir (accessed December 4, 2015).

* genetic (juh-NEH-tik) refers to heredity and the ways in which genes control the development and maintenance of organisms.

* cystic fibrosis (SIS-tik fy-BRO-sis) is a disease that causes the body to produce thick mucus that clogs passages in many of the body's organs, including the lungs.

* German measles is a viral infection that usually causes a rash and mild fever. Also called rubella (roo-BEH-luh).

* schizophrenia (skit-suh-FREE-neeuh) is a serious mental disorder that causes people to experience hallucinations, delusions, and other confusing thoughts and behaviors that distort their view of reality.

* psychologist (sy-KOL-uh-jist) is a mental health professional who can do psychological testing and provide mental health counseling.

* psychiatrist (sy-KY-uh-trist) is a medical doctor who has completed specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Psychiatrists can diagnose mental illnesses, provide mental health counseling, and prescribe medications.

* chronic (KRAH-nik) means lasting a long time or recurring frequently.

* muscular dystrophy (DIS-tro-fee) is a group of inherited disorders that causes muscle weakening that worsens over time.

* Alzheimer's (ALTS-hy-merz) disease is a condition that leads to gradually worsening loss of mental abilities, including memory, judgment, and abstract thinking, as well as changes in personality.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)