What is a disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that protects people with disabilities against discrimination.  Different laws may have different definitions of the word disability. This page is about the ADA definition of the word disability.

What is a disability (according to the Americans with Disabilities Act)?

You have a disability if it is very difficult or impossible for you to do everyday things like:

  • Hear
  • See
  • Speak
  • Focus
  • Sleep
  • Walk
  • Breathe


Here’s another way to understand it: your brain, body, or organs (like your heart or kidneys) work differently compared to how most people’s do.

Who is protected by the ADA?

You are protected by the ADA if:

  • You have a disability
  • You used to have a disability (even if you don’t anymore)
  • You never had a disability, but you think you do, or 
  • You are close to someone that has a disability like your child, parent, or spouse

Examples of disabilities

The list does not include every disability. It helps show the number and variety of disabilities. Some disabilities may fall in more than one category.

Physical disabilities

  • Use a wheelchair or crutches
  • Use a cane, walker, or rollator for support
  • Missing an arm, leg, hand or foot
  • Paralysis in part of the body
  • Unsteady or lose balance easily
  • Cannot stand for long periods time

Psychiatric or mental health disability

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Schizophrenia
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorder

Deaf or hard of hearing

  • Total hearing loss
  • Significant hearing loss
  • Requires a hearing aid
  • Uses a cochlear implant

Blind or low vision

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) 
  • Cataracts 
  • Diabetic retinopathy 
  • Glaucoma
  • Myopathy

Developmental disability

  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Intellectual disability
  • Down syndrome

Learning disability

  • Dyslexia
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Auditory Processing Disorder

Brain injury

  • Traumatic brain injury 
  • Concussion
  • Encephalitis
  • Tumor
  • Hemorrhage

Spinal cord injury

  • Traumatic spinal cord injury
  • Injury to spinal cord caused by infection, arthritis, inflammation, or disk degeneration

Cognitive disabilities

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Dementia
  • Effects from a stroke
  • Memory loss

Health Disability

  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Kidney failure
  • Arthritis
  • Heart disease

Substance use disorder 

(if recovering from addiction and not actively using)

  • Opioid Use Disorder
  • Cannabis or Marijuana Use Disorder
  • Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Nicotine Use Disorder
  • Stimulant Use Disorder
  • Sedative Use Disorder
  • Hallucinogen Use Disorder
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