What comes to mind when you hear the word “disabled”? How do you define “disability”? You may envision a particular image or stereotype, likely influenced by pop culture. But, the actual definition–or definitions–of disability may differ. 

What are some of the different ways to think about disability, and what is the emotional impact both of disability itself and the way we view disability in society? 

Dictionary definition 

The general dictionary definition of “disability” is the one that you’re most likely to hear in social settings. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “disability” as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.” 

Legal definition

In the United States, certain rights are protected by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, “an individual with a disability is defined…as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” This legal definition may be used in work, education, or financial settings. 

But how do real people define disability?

The formal definitions above have a couple of key points in common:

  1. Disability comes in many different forms. 
  2. Though they can be visible, disabilities are not always–or even often–something you can see.

It may be wise to approach the world, then, with the idea that we cannot assume whether any particular individual has a disability. Mental health conditions, for example, are largely invisible, but many are considered disabilities.

Even if you don’t qualify for accommodations or government assistance, and even if your disability is invisible, you can still experience bona fide disability. Some disabilities are temporary or potentially temporary, whereas others are permanent. Still other disabilities occur in cycles or “flare-up” patterns. 

Again, it’s hard to describe every disabled experience with one definition.

What kinds of disabilities are there?

Since some disabilities are more talked about–and thus, more visible–than others, you may wonder what kinds of disabilities there are. A disability may affect one or more of the following areas:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Mobility (standing or walking)
  • Fine motor skills (grasping, writing, typing)
  • Feeding or other bodily functions
  • Stamina (performing a given task for an extended period of time)
  • Thinking
  • Memory 
  • Learning
  • Communication
  • Mental health
  • Emotion regulation
  • Social relationships

Disability status can also vary from person to person within a single diagnosis. Some diagnoses cause disability in a regular, reliable way, while others can produce varying forms of disability (like autism). 

Everyone will use different language to talk about themselves and their disability, diagnosis, or condition. Similarly, there are also different schools of thought surrounding disability and what makes a person disabled. Most revolve around the concept of whether symptoms prevent an individual from performing fundamental tasks without significant effort or dysfunction. This concept is referred to as one’s ability to complete “activities of daily living” or ADLs

Some feel that society creates the experience of disability through lack of accessibility. However, others have pointed out that they would identify as disabled even if every need of theirs was accommodated as well as possible. 

The truth lies in both of these perspectives at once. The experience of disability is often amplified by the society we live in, but accommodations usually don’t completely counteract or erase the experience of disability. 

Disability can affect anyone

It’s all too often that someone who lives with a disability hears “you’re too young to be disabled,” “no way you are disabled,” or other stereotype-driven, offensive remarks. Some even receive comments like, “you’re too pretty to be disabled.” It’s important to remember that disability can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or how well you take care of yourself.

Watch one hair stylist’s relatable TikTok about facing hearing loss as a child to see an example of how harmful disability stereotypes can show up: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZTdAnU7HD/

The emotional impacts of disability

Disability has many potential emotional impacts. These include but aren’t at all limited to:


Some people are born with their disabilities, while others develop them later on. Either way, grief is natural: the grief for what could’ve been, or the grief for what once was.

Grief can also come to encompass anger, jealousy, and resentment. These are also ok to feel sometimes, given what you’re going through.

Lack of understanding from others

Lack of understanding from other people is one of the most challenging parts of disability for a lot of people. Sometimes, people say things like, “get well soon” (to a person with a condition that does not go away), “you’re not disabled, you’re differently-abled,” or, “don’t let your disability ‘stop’ you.” 

But, if you live with a disability, you know how frustrating these things can be. Disability is not a character flaw, but there are some things that some disabilities very much do stop you from doing. Hearing reassurance from someone who isn’t in your same position can be frustrating, because it can feel like an assumption.

Feelings of hopelessness or loss of control

While none of us can really control life, disability usually adds to feelings of hopelessness and loss of control. This is especially so for permanent disabilities, or when treatment does not ease every symptom (which is most often the case). As a disabled person, you may feel at the mercy of others–accommodating you or not, judging you or not. This is extra stress that a non-disabled person may not have to face. 


Managing the bare minimum in daily life can take up all your energy when you have a disability (or multiple disabilities). Sometimes one of the most noticeable manifestations of disability is that the disabled person just doesn’t have much time or energy for anything else. Unfortunately, this burnout can be a self-fulfilling cycle for disabilities, as ADLs (eating, moving, hygeine) take priority over recharging activities.

The importance of emotional support

As disability can cause you to feel isolated or alienated, emotional support is important. Social support is linked to better health outcomes, including better health outcomes in people who are either permanently or temporarily disabled. Some research studies even link social support to a longer life. On the other hand, higher levels of hypertension, substance use, diabetes, depression, and other concerns are seen in those with lower social support. 

Social support can help those with mental health conditions, as well as those with physical or other conditions. It can also simply feel good to surround yourself with others who you feel empowered by or who understand what you go through in your day-to-day life. This is why peer support opportunities like venting to friends, attending support groups, or using online peer support can help. 

Whether you live with a disability or want to support someone with one, connection and understanding are powerful. Know that while your situation is unique, someone else out there is bound to understand–or at least listen. Consider reaching out to someone about your experience. That could be a friend or a peer support option like Supportiv.

Defining disability as an ally, whether you’re abled or not 

A lack of understanding can have a profound emotional impact. Whether you have a disability yourself or not, being an ally means supporting other people and doing what you can to close the gap between your experience and theirs. 

One of the ways to make a positive mark on the world is to listen to other people, increase empathy, and challenge any automatic assumptions or judgments you may have. Believe people when they share their experiences.

Furthermore, you can fight for disability rights in tangible ways, even if it’s just standing up when you hear someone make a judgmental, stigmatizing, or otherwise unfair and unhelpful remark. Set the record straight when people misunderstand what disability means.

And most importantly, when you define disability for yourself and others, understand that no two people’s experiences are exactly alike.