It’s critical that employers understand the diversity and prevalence of disability, as well as what it means—practically and legally—in order to ensure an inclusive workplace for all.
For many, the word “disability” conjures images of individuals who use wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf. But according to a 2011 World Health Organization report, disability is a far more diverse part of the human experience; it affects all of us at some point of our lives, either directly or through a family member or close friend.
A functional definition of disability focuses on three areas:
Impairments with body function or alterations in body structure (e.g. paralysis, blindness); difficulties executing activities (e.g., walking, eating); and participation restrictions (e.g., lack of access to accessible transportation systems).
Disabilities can be visible or invisible, temporary or long term, chronic or episodic. Environment can act as a facilitator or barrier for individuals with disabilities. A person who uses a wheelchair, for example, may find their disability more salient in a multistory building without an elevator than in a building that is fully accessible.
While the above description is broader in scope, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA) offer more specific, legal guidelines that are critical to entities and employers in the US.
The ADAAA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”
Key to this definition are such terms as “physical or mental impairment,” meaning any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems (e.g., neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin and endocrine). Major life activities that fall in this category include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.