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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

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Question: How does the federal government define "disability"?

Answer: The definition of "disability" varies depending on the purpose for which it is being used. Federal and state agencies generally use a definition that is specific to a particular program or service. For example:

  • For purposes of nondiscrimination laws (e.g. the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act), a person with a disability is generally defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.
  • To be found disabled for purposes of Social Security disability benefits, individuals must have a severe disability (or combination of disabilities) that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months or result in death, and which prevents working at a "substantial gainful activity" level.
  • State vocational rehabilitation (VR) offices will find a person with a disability to be eligible for VR services if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that constitutes or results in a "substantial impediment" to employment for the applicant.

Some of these definitions include words or phrases that have been the subject of lawsuits, as individuals, agencies, and courts try to clarify the terms used in some of these definitions of disability. If you want to find out if a particular disability or condition gives you certain rights, contact the federal or state agency that enforces the law in question. If you want to find out if you qualify for a particular program or service, be sure to contact the federal or state agency that administers the program to find out the specifics of the disability definition they use.