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What is Disability?

This introductory resource explains how disability is defined and the “models of disability,” or frameworks, that are used to understand the disability experience. It also offers insight into disability statistics.

Understanding Disability


According to the legal definition set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.  

However, this definition doesn’t really offer a full picture of disability. It’s important to recognize the diversity of disability. Disabilities can be visible or invisible, something a person is born with or acquired at any point in life. Many people simply envision a wheelchair when thinking about disability, but there are so many types of disabilities beyond mobility disabilities. When we talk about disability, we must remember that this includes, but is in no way limited to, mental health disabilities, chronic illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and hearing and vision disabilities.

Models of Disability

Defining disability solely as a medical diagnosis (physical, biological, pathological) ignores the structural inequities that often cause or contribute to disability. This way of thinking, known as the “medical model,” assumes that an individual’s disability is a problem in need of fixing, curing, or eradicating, rather than recognizing it as a facet of identity. Medical approaches tend to ignore the reality that many disabilities are chronic and cannot be “fixed,” and that many disabled people do not want a “cure.” By contrast, the “social model” of disability considers the “problem” to be society and the barriers – whether physical or attitudinal – it places in front of people with disabilities. It’s these barriers, not the person, that must change.

The key is to recognize that disability itself is not a problem; it is a natural part of the human experience. Traditionally donors have mostly approached disability using the medical model, but the social model is critical to understand the way disability intersects with and is caused by other inequalities.

Further reading on models of disability:

Remember, disability cuts across class, gender, race, ethnicity, but being disabled disproportionately affects those living in poverty, women, and Black and non-Black people of color.

Click here for the video transcript.

Disability by the Numbers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 61 million adults in the United States are disabled. That’s 1 in 4 adults.
  • 2 in 5 adults age 65 and above in the United States have a disability.
  • 36 million women in the United States have a disability.
Click here for the video transcript.