|  What is Considered a Disability?
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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.

Class attendance, physical function and mental agility may each be affected by changing medical conditions and the resulting medication or treatment. Flexible class attendance may be needed or extended time for assignments. The student may need to take a make-up exam. Accommodation is determined on an individual basis as a result of discussion and planning between student and the Disability Services Coordinator (DSC).

Additional questions may be directed to the Disability Services Coordinator at 301-696-3421 or