Disability Definition: Types of Disability and Social Disability Benefits You Should Know


Many people find themselves at a loss when it comes to issues concerning disability. Although there are a lot of negative stereotypes about people with disabilities flying around, most people still don’t know what counts as a disability, what it means to live with a disability and the types of disability.

It is important that you know as much as you can about disabilities and what counts as one especially if you are considered to be someone with a disability. People with disabilities have special benefits according to the Social Security Administration which offers Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other disability benefits to people with disabilities.

However, not every type of disability will be considered for Social Security benefits and this is because not all disabilities actually limit a person from living a fairly normal life.

In this article, we are going to look at what it really means to be disabled, types of disability including the types that would qualify for Social Security benefits (physically disabilities are easily considered), and the causes and treatment of these disabilities.

Disability Definition

There are many definitions of disability, however, they all point at the fact that disabilities do limit the movement, sense or activities of an individual.

According to the WHO, disability is used to describe conditions like impairments, participation restrictions, and activity limitations.

Although these definitions should serve all kinds of disabilities, you will come to know that only handicap or disadvantage conditions that are recognized by law are considered disabilities.

Below we have listed various disability examples including the disabilities that are recognized by law

Types of disabilities

There are hundreds of disabilities which fall into various categories and sub-categories. These categories and sub-categories include mobility impairments, invisible disabilities, spinal cord disabilities among others. However, there are 4 main types of disabilities as shown below

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities or impairment limit or restrict a person’s movement and/or capacity. The disability could affect the upper limbs, lower limbs or the whole body. It could also affect manual dexterity and co-ordination with different organs of the body.

Physical disabilities can be acquired through genetic disorders or caused by serious illness and injury.

Types of Physical Disabilities

Acquired Brain Injury

An acquired brain injury could be traumatic or non-traumatic. The condition refers to brain injury that happens after birth which could be due to accidents, blunt force trauma, sporting injuries, falls, infections, tumors, stroke, locked in syndrome, arteriovenous malformation, brain hemorrhage, loss of oxygen, dementia and surgical complications.

An acquired brain injury could lead to paralysis or mental and intellectual disabilities.

Spinal cord injury (SCI)

The Spinal cord is an important part of the central nervous system which controls all voluntary and involuntary movement done by the body. Injury to the nervous system can result in partial or total paralysis depending on the severity of the injury.

Spinal cord injuries affect mobility, however, it could also lead to sensory disability and several other health conditions if the injury to the spinal code is severe.

Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida is a condition that affects the spinal cord and is used to refer to the incomplete formation of the spine. Spina Bifida leads to mobility issues and seizures, however, people with this condition could have bowel or bladder problems.

The actual cause of the condition is unknown, however, it is believed that genetics and environmental factors would play a role. Another possible cause could be the lack of folic acid in the diet of the mother during pregnancy.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral Palsy is a serious condition that results in irreversible movement disorders. The condition is due to damage to the brain before birth, however, a small percentage of cerebral percentage is caused by brain damage after birth.

Cerebral Palsy can also result in sensory and intellectual disabilities depending on the severity of the damage. The main cause of the condition is unknown but possible causes could be if the baby is born through in vitro fertilization or if the baby is born too small.

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Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis affects the lungs and limits breathing. The condition could also affect the digestive and reproductive system leading to constipation and male infertility.

The condition is caused by a genetic mutation and is without a cure. The severity of the condition differs from person to person with some cases being life-threatening and others with only mild effects that allow the affected person to live a normal life.


Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by unprovoked repeated seizures and leads to other health problems for the affected individual.

Genetics, head trauma, brain infections, brain damage, and development disorders are believed to be possible causes of the condition, however, the actual cause remains unknown.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis is a serious condition that could lead to mobility problems and sensory disability depending on the severity of the disease. The disease is caused by the wasting away of the protective sheath that covers never fibers.

In some severe cases, the affected individual would lose complete control of their limbs permanently. Symptoms of the condition can appear really fast or quite slow, this coupled with other complications make it a very complex disease.

Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is used to refer to genetic-related disorders that affect the muscles and leads to mobility problems.

Symptoms of the disease could appear during childhood (if its Duchenne type muscular dystrophy) or at adulthood (for other types of muscular dystrophy).

Tourette Syndrome

Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary actions called tics. These tics would be movements or vocalizations and are present throughout the life of the affected person.

Symptoms of the disorder start to appear in early childhood and include several actions like blinking, shoulder shrugging, sniffing, throat clearing, grunting, etc which could be considered normal, however, they are repetitive and the person has no control over them.

Medications can be used to suppress the condition which makes it easier for the affected person to live with the condition.


Dwarfism could be as a result of a medical condition or genetics. Generally, adults with a height below 4 feet 10 inches are considered to be dwarfs.

Unlike many other physical disabilities, dwarfism doesn’t lead to intellectual or sensory disabilities.


Polio is an infectious disease that usually leads to paralysis and/or deformity of the limbs. The disease has no cure, however, vaccination could help prevent someone from getting infected.  

Prader-Willi Syndrome

Prader-Willi syndrome leads to leads to physical, mental and behavioral problems and is characterized by incessant hunger, temper tantrums, sleep problems and lack of adequate growth hormones.


Arthritis is used to describe over 100 joint related issues and issues that affect the tissues surrounding the joints.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common types of arthritis and affect more people than the other types combined.

Mental Disabilities

Mental disabilities or mental disorders are conditions that affect the behavior and emotional state of the individual.

Types of Mental Disabilities

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that is characterized by episodes of high feelings of excitement and low feelings of sadness.

In severe cases, the affected person would have suicidal thoughts during a depressive episode. The condition is believed to be due to genetics and environmental factors, however, the actual cause remains unknown.

Neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders are characterized by the inability of the affected person to acquire the skills necessary to perform everyday tasks.

IQ of individuals with this condition is usually between 70 and 75 with early symptoms being communication disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

There are many types of anxiety disorders with all being characterized by feelings of intense and persistent fear and worry. Some anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder make the individual worry about everyday activities which would affect how well they function.  

These disorders would be caused by genetic, psychological or environmental factors. The severity of the disorder will depend on these factors.

Trauma and Stress Related Disorders

These disorders are usually caused by stressful and/or traumatic events and include

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  • Adjustment disorder
  • Acute stress disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Reactive attachment disorder.

Common symptoms include depressive moods, hopelessness, anger, and reduced emotional responsiveness. Although the actual cause of the disorders is unknown, it is believed to be influenced by psychological and environmental factors. The racial background of an individual could also lead to the development of these disorders.


Depression is the most common mental disorder in the U.S affecting more than 40 million adults in the country.

Depressive moods are characterized by feelings of sadness, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, insomnia, weight loss, guilt and suicidal thoughts (in severe cases).

Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative Disorders affect the memory, personality, and awareness of the affected persons. People with these disorders usually experience a lack of continuity in reality and could have emotional problems.

Dissociative disorders can lead to other kinds of disorders like sleep, eating and personality disorders. In severe cases, the affected persons could carry out their suicidal thoughts.

Types of dissociative disorders include

  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder

Somatic Symptom and Related Disorder

Somatic symptom and related disorders are characterized by intense reactions to illnesses or intense reactions to the belief of being ill.

There are various types of Somatic symptom and related disorders and they include

  • Somatic symptom disorder
  • Illness anxiety disorder
  • Conversion disorder,
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Factitious disorder

Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders are believed to be caused by genetic and biological factors, learned behavior, and environmental factors. 

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental disorders that cause a person to either consume a lot of food or consume non-food substances. These disorders can lead to serious health consequences for the affected person if not treated.

Types of eating disorders include

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Rumination disorder
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Pica

Genetics and biological factors are believed to be contributing factors to these disorders, however, the actual cause of the disorder is unknown.

Impulse-Control and Conduct Disorders

These disorders are characterized by destructive and aggressive behaviors that last longer and are more severe than normal behaviors

Types of impulse-control disorders include

  • Kleptomania
  • Pyromania
  • Intermittent explosive disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders affect a person’s ability to sleep and would lead to other disorders. They are usually due to stress and environmental factors. Sleep disorders would also be symptoms of other health problems.

Types of sleep disorders include

  • Narcolepsy
  • Insomnia disorder
  • hypersomnolence
  • Breathing-related sleep disorders
  • Parasomnias
  • Restless legs syndrome

Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders

Substance-related disorders involve the abuse of substances like cocaine, alcohol, and methamphetamine.

Types of substance-related disorders include

  • Alcohol-related disorders
  • Cannabis-related disorders
  • Stimulant use disorder
  • Tobacco use disorder

Personality Disorders

Personality Disorders affect the personality of an individual and lead to unhealthy thinking patterns that would make it difficult for the person to function normally.

There are 10 types of personality disorders and they are

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

Neurocognitive Disorders

Neurocognitive Disorders refers to acquired deficits in cognitive function.

Types of neurocognitive disorder include Delirium or acute state confusional state.

Sensory Disabilities

Sensory Disabilities refers to impairment of the senses and they affect how a person senses and interacts with the world. Sensory disabilities can be caused by genetics, birth defects, trauma to a sense organ, accidents, infections, etc.

Types of Sensory Disabilities

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

People with this disorder are unable to form friendships and lack communication skills. They have sleep problems and difficulty keeping focus during conversations.

Genetics and environmental factors are believed to be contributing factors to the disorder, however, the actual cause of the disorder remains unknown.


Blindness or low vision is a sensory disability that affects the vision of an individual. There are various types of blindness, however, a person will only be considered to be blind if their state is able to meet with the legal definition of blindness.

Blindness can be due to eye diseases, stroke, vitamin A deficiency, inflammatory diseases, and genetics.

Hearing Loss and Deafness

Hearing loss could be in one or both ears, it would also be severe or mild and in some cases lead to total deafness.

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Hearing loss can be caused by damage to the inner ear, excess buildup of earwax, ear infection or a ruptured eardrum.

Genetics, age, and exposure to loud noises for long periods of time are risk factors to would increase your chances of losing your hearing.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is characterized by the inability of the brain to process information that comes in through the senses.

People with this disorder have abnormal responses and could overreact to ordinary situations. This condition is sometimes considered as a symptom of another condition rather than a disorder on its own.

Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability restricts the individual’s ability to function normally and perform everyday activities.

Generally, people with IQ below 70 in addition to deficits in two or more behaviors that affect general living are considered intellectually disabled.

Types of Intellectual Disabilities

Fragile X Syndrome

Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic disorder that leads to intellectual disability. The symptoms are usually more severe in males than in females.

Fragile X Syndrome is caused by a mutation in the genes which leads to abnormality. The most common symptoms are intellectual, physical and mental disabilities with an IQ lower than 55.

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that completely alters the mental, physical and intellectual state of the affected person. It leads to intellectual and physical abnormalities.  

Down syndrome is believed to be caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21, however, it remains unclear why someone would get an extra copy.

Other factors that play a contributing role relate to the genetics and environmental factors of the individual.

Congenital Hypothyroidism

Congenital Hypothyroidism is characterized by an underactive or incompletely formed thyroid gland. This limits the glands ability to produce enough of some important hormones.

Iodine deficiency and birth defects are believed to be causes of this condition, however, the actual cause remains unknown.

This condition can be treated with pills of thyroid hormone that should make up for the inability of the thyroid gland to produce important hormones. 

Prader-Willi Syndrome

Prader-Willi Syndrome is a complex genetic disorder that is caused by the loss of function of some specific genes.

This disorder is characterized by an excessive need for food which leads to obesity and increases the risk of diabetes 2. Symptoms include short stature, delay puberty, intellectual disability, and obesity.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

FASD are conditions that result from the exposure to alcohol while in the womb. The disorder leads to birth defects and neurodevelopment disorders.

Types of FASDs are

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (ARN)
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

Social Disability Benefits

Social disability benefits are available to people with disabilities in the US and it is administered by the Social Security Administration.

The Social Security Administration offers Social Security programs to provide assistance to people with disabilities.

These programs include the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, however, not everyone with a disability is eligible to apply for these programs

Social Security Disability Insurance

This program is for those with disabilities that have insurance. It pays benefits to you and certain members of your family based on that criteria.

Supplemental Security Income

You will be able to receive assistance through this program based on financial needs.

Before you can apply for any of the programs, you must meet Social Security’s definition of disability. Then you can choose any program you want to apply for and check the eligibility requirements before applying.

Depending on your disability and record, you should easily get approved for social disability benefits, however, it is important that you read the instructions and eligibility requirements carefully before applying.

Disabilities Eligible for Social Disabilities Benefits

There are a lot of medical conditions that can cause disability, however, social disability benefits are only available for a few of these conditions. Below are the categories of disorders that are eligible for social disability benefits.

  • Musculoskeletal system
  • Special senses and speech
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Digestive system
  • Genitourinary disorders
  • Hematological disorders
  • Skin disorders
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Congenital disorders that affect several body systems
  • Neurological disorders
  • Mental disorders
  • Cancer (malignant neoplastic diseases)
  • Immune system disorders

Here is the complete list of medical conditions considered for social disability benefits. Note that, even if you have a condition in the list, your work status and the severity of your condition will be taken into account. There are special situations like disability benefits for a child, widow or veteran.

You can apply for social disability benefits online after going through the eligibility requirements and the instructions.


Social disability benefits provided by the Social Security Administration are not the only place to get disability benefits. There are various Non-Governmental organizations in the US and worldwide organizations that provide financial aid and promote the rights of people with disabilities all over the world.

Some of these organizations within the US and all over the world includes

  • Arc Association for Real Change
  • American Council of the Blind
  • American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities
  • Disability Rights Commission
  • International Disability and Development Consortium
  • Mental Disability Rights International
  • National Association of the Deaf
  • Muscular Dystrophy Association
  • United Spinal Association
  • United States International Council of Disabilities
  • Tourette Association of America

There are many specific organizations which accept individuals with a certain disability like the American Council of the Blind and many more general organizations which accept people with all kinds of disability like the International Disability and Development Consortium.

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