General Types of Disabilities

by Cam N. Coulter

Posted on May 4, 2021 accessibility

Universal access icon: a stick figure with a circle around them

There are lots of different disabilities out there. In my next post, I will explore specific types of disabilities, their associated barriers, and appropriate assistive technologies and adaptive strategies. First, though, I want to explore some different broad ways that we can categorize disabilities.

Four General Categories

Most disabilities can fall under one of these broad categories:

  1. Visual: affects your sense of sight.
  2. Auditory: affects your sense of hearing.
  3. Motor: affects your mobility and/or dexterity.
  4. Cognitive: affects your brain and/or your thinking.

These four categories can be a helpful shorthand, but there are some limitations to this way of thinking:

  1. Lots of people have multiple or compound disabilities, and if we stick to thinking of disability as simply these four categories, we might overlook that.
  2. Not all types of disabilities may neatly fit under one of those categories. For example, it’s hard to see where exactly speech disabilities fit in. Some speech disabilities could qualify as cognitive disabilities, while others might qualify as motor disabilities. If you only think about disability in terms of those four broad categories, I think you’re missing something.
  3. The term “cognitive disabilities” is incredibly broad, so broad that it might not be particularly useful. The term includes developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and more. Not only does the term “cognitive disabilities” include this broad set of differing disabilities, but most of these disabilities, taken individually, can still vary enormously person to person.

Permanent, Temporary, and Situational

You can also categorize disabilities based on how long they affect someone for. Do you have a permanent disability, a temporary impairment, and/or a situational limitation?

  Permanent Temporary Situational
Visual Blind Recently had eye surgery Outside somewhere incredibly bright, without a hat or sunglasses
Auditory Deaf Ear infection At a concert
Motor Cerebral palsy Broken bone (wearing a cast) You overexert yourself at the gym, or you are carrying something heavy and delicate
Cognitive Developmental disability Brain fog from Covid-19 Extremely tired

I think Microsoft does a fantastic job illustrating this with their Persona Spectrum, published in their Inclusive 101 Manual.

I love this way of thinking about disabilities and limitations because it reminds us disability is a spectrum that we all fall under to varying degrees, not a binary on/off switch. Relatedly, accessibility is also a spectrum. Most things aren’t just “accessible or not accessible.” Rather, they are accessible to certain types of people with certain types of disabilities and limitations.

Have you ever encountered one of these sayings?

  1. We are all only temporarily able-bodied.
  2. We will all be disabled if we live long enough.

I’m not sure those two sayings are technically true. Someone could be born without disabilities and die before they acquire any. That said, these sayings convey an important truth: as we age, our bodies weaken, and if we live long enough, most all of us are likely to acquire age-related disabilities. Maybe our vision will degrade, or maybe we will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This is a broad way of categorizing disabilities, and in certain contexts this lens can be quite useful.

Recognizable and Hidden Disabilities

Some disabilities are easily recognizable. Someone who is blind may carry a cane. Someone with a seizure disorder may routinely wear a helmet. A person with a mobility impairment may use their wheelchair every day.

Other disabilities are hidden. Just by looking at someone, you can’t typically tell whether they have autism or anxiety.

This way of categorizing disabilities is also a spectrum. If you use a wheelchair, your disability may be hidden while you are home using the Internet, but your disability will be extremely visible on public transit. Many intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are a little recognizable. When I first started working with adults with IDD at L’Arche Heartland in Kansas, I struggled a bit to identify who were core members (adults with IDD) and who were assistants, but as I’ve worked in this field longer, I’ve become slightly better at identifying who has an IDD.

This can be a useful way of categorizing disabilities (recognizable vs. hidden) because how others read your disability affects how others treat you. Those with hidden disabilities can be quite different experiences than those with recognizable ones.

Web-Relevant Disabilities

Computers, the Internet, and the Web have become integral elements of modern life. Many, but not all, disabilities affect a person’s ability to use these tools. Typically, only disabilities that affect a person’s eyes, ears, hands, or brain influence a person’s ability to use the web independently. This way of categorizing disabilities can be useful to designers and developers creating websites and apps.

The term “print disabilities” is another broad way of categorizing disabilities. The term includes those with visual disabilities (like blindness and low vision) as well as certain cognitive disabilities like dyslexia. Although the causes of print disabilities can differ significantly, people with print disabilities will use many of the same adaptive strategies and assistive technologies. For those with print disabilities, it can be important to hear content read to them, adjust the display of text, or simply be given more time to process text. For these reasons, I think this category can be useful when it comes to discussing or thinking about accessibility or assistive technology.

Speech Disabilities

There are many different causes of speech disabilities (a stroke, hearing loss, ALS), but they all affect a central element of life: speech. In this way, I think the phrase “speech disabilities” is somewhat similar to the phrase “print disabilities.” However, unlike with print disabilities, I think people with speech disabilities may use significantly different adaptive strategies or assistive technologies depending on the specific cause of their disability.

Disabilities that are Minor and Easily Compensated for

I wear glasses. I can complete most tasks without them, although reading can be a challenge if I don’t have them. My employer pays for my vision insurance, and my vision insurance pays for some of the cost of my glasses. It’s relatively easy to get my vision checked out and order a new pair when I need one. This is a relatively minor (and common) impairment, one that society supports and compensates for fairly well and one that doesn’t create many activity limitations.

Some disabilities are minor and easily compensated for, like my vision. I don’t think we have great language yet to talk about these sorts of disabilities. Honestly, I don’t even really think “disability” is the correct word here, because I am rarely disabled because of my vision. Disability, and human ability in general, is a broad spectrum. But I do think this is another way of thinking about and categorizing dis/abilities that can be helpful to keep in mind.

Those are several different broad ways of categorizing disabilities. Did I miss any general categories that you think are helpful or meaningful?

Imaged created by Cam Coulter. Icon by mikion on the Noun Project.

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