It is important to understand what the laws consider a disability to be, especially if you intend on applying for disability benefits such as Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income. Specific definitions do vary slightly between laws.
The Americans with Disabilities Act uses the term “disability” as a legal term and includes physical and mental impairments that limit a person's ability to do basic life activities. The ADA includes individuals who have a record of impairment regardless of whether the impairment is currently present.
Centers for Disease Control definition
The Centers for Disease Control defines a disability as any condition of the mind or body that makes doing certain tasks and interacting with the world more difficult. They provide three categories:
- Impairment: Physical or mental function, including loss of limbs, vision or memory
- Activity limitation: Including poor vision, hearing or walking or difficulty thinking
- Participation restriction: Involving daily activities, from working to social interaction and recreation; can also include an inability to obtain preventative services or health care
In general, a disability can affect many different areas, from seeing, hearing and speaking to thinking, remembering, moving and the ability to have relationships. Disability can begin at birth or can develop during childhood, from an accident or from a long-term progressive issue such as a work-related repetitive motion injury.
Social Security Administration definition
The SSA provides a definition for disability to clearly determine who qualifies for the benefit programs. It considers a disability as any inability to engage in a substantial gainful activity due to a physical or mental impairment that a doctor can determine medically. This disability must last continuously for at least 12 months or result in death.
For a disability or impairment to be medically determinable, a doctor must be able to prove it using clinical and lab diagnostics. A doctor's statement alone would not be sufficient to prove a disability to collect Social Security benefits.