What Do We Mean When We Say Disability?

What Do We Mean When We Say Disability?
Monday, February 5, 2018
Young man in collard shirt and vest standing against brick wall in sunglasses holding white cane

Author: Kathy Petkauskos, Director, Work Without Limits

Oftentimes when we are conducting disability etiquette and other similar training's for employers, the first question we get is: what do you mean when you say disability? It’s a very good question because disability is different for everyone; it varies from person to person, and can change over time. It’s important to understand this in order to better serve employees, clients, and others involved in your business.  So, what do we mean when we say disability?

Disability is a broad term that includes a wide range of conditions that occur across the life span.  Apparent disabilities often come to mind first such as:

•             Mobility impairments --- for example, someone who uses a wheelchair

•             Intellectual or developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome

•             Blindness

Disability also includes conditions that may not be apparent such as learning disabilities, low vision, chronic illnesses, and mental health conditions.

Did you know that 80% of people with disabilities acquire their disability sometime during their lifetime, and 20% are born with their disability?

People who are born with their disability may be more comfortable with their disability. It’s what they’ve known their whole life; it is part of who they are as a person. 

Young woman in red glasses sitting in front of bookshelf

For others, their disability may be new to them and they could be anywhere on the continuum of adjusting to a new way of life. Examples of this could include someone who sustains a spinal cord injury in a motor vehicle accident and now uses a wheelchair.  Or, it could be someone recently diagnosed with a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder or depression.

For persons who are newly diagnosed with a disability, they may go through a process of adjustment. Keep in mind that disability does not change a person; a person with a newly acquired disability is the same person they were before, therefore, it is important not to treat them any differently.

Also bear in mind that someone may acquire a disability mid-career. Their career may have been interrupted for a period of time while they were undergoing treatment or rehabilitation. Someone in this situation may be looking to re-enter the labor market after a period of absence. They may be looking to pick up where their career left off – in the same or similar position, with the same or similar employer, with or without an accommodation. Or, they may be looking for a job that is completely different from what they did before. Their disability could now prevent them from doing the job they did previously; they have been re-trained and are re-tooled for a new career. This also means they could be seeking an entry-level position even though they may be at an age where you’d expect them to be mid-career. 

Another scenario may be someone who is looking to do a related position but not at the level they were at before. In this particular situation, a candidate may appear over-qualified.  An example of this may be someone who held a high-level position with a lot of responsibility and stress and who experienced a psychiatric illness. After treatment they decide to resume their career but in a role with less responsibility and stress in an attempt to be successful both at work and in their personal life.

Disability can also be age-related. Shifting perceptions of retirement, increased workplace flexibility and the aging of the baby boomer generation are all contributing to people working longer. Mature workers may develop disabilities as they age, or existing disabilities may become more significant.

Also, veterans who are returning from active military duty may have acquired a disability – or multiple disabilities, often caused by blast-related trauma. These can include physical, cognitive and psychological in nature.

Finally, people with disabilities cross all segments of the employee and candidate population. A person with a disability can be of any age, gender, race and ethnic background, and they can also be members of the LGBTQ community. People with disabilities come from all walks of life and are the only protected class of employees that any of us can join at any time. As a matter of fact, 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have or will experience a disability.

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Kathy Petkauskos Headshot

Author Bio: Kathy Petkauskos is the Director of Work Without Limits and Associate Director of the Disability, Health and Employment Policy unit at UMass Medical School. Kathy lives in Hudson, Massachusetts and is the mother of two children both of whom have disabilities and are now grown adults living and working successfully!