What is Physical Disability | Types of Physical Disability


In 2016, 40 million Americans which accounts for about 12.8% of the population were living with one disability or the other. In 2019, the number rose as high as over 49 million which accounts for about 20% of the population. These figures are according to estimates provided by the United States Census Bureau which goes further to state that nearly 1 in every 5 American has one type of disability or the other (physical or mental) with 1 in 10 of such cases being severe.

Physical disabilities make up a significant part of the disability population in the U.S and are easily favored for Social Security disability benefits in the US.

In this article, we are going to look at the definition of a physical disability and the types of physical disabilities

What is Physical Disability

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 coordination 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

Acquired brain injury refers to brain damage that happens after birth. There are various causes of brain damage which are identified as traumatic or non-traumatic.

Traumatic brain injuries are as a result of accidents, blunt force trauma, sporting injuries, and falls. Non-traumatic brain injuries are caused by infections, tumors, stroke, locked in syndrome, arteriovenous malformation, brain hemorrhage, loss of oxygen, dementia and surgical complications.

The difference between Traumatic and non-traumatic brain injuries is that traumatic brain injuries are caused by trauma to the head or brain while non-traumatic injuries are caused by diseases, tumor, cancer and several other health conditions. 

Spinal cord injury (SCI)

The Spinal cord relays messages from the brain to the body’s systems that control motor, sensory and autonomic functions. Thus, spinal cord injuries lead to loss of sensation in the area below the level of the injury.

Most spinal cord injuries are caused by trauma to the vertebral column which houses the spinal cord. Depending on the severity of the trauma to the vertebral column, the spinal cord injury could cause permanent physical disability which results in paraplegia or quadriplegia.

Spinal cord injuries mostly lead to mobility disabilities, however, the individual might have sensory disabilities and other health conditions depending on the severity of the injury

Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida meaning “split spine” is a common birth defect in the U.S. Spina Bifida is the incomplete formation of the spine which leads to mobility issues, seizures, and bowel or bladder problems.

Spina Bifida is believed to be caused by genetic or environmental factors, however, the main cause of the condition is unknown. It is also believed that the lack of folic acid (a type of Vitamin D) in the diet of the mother would lead to the incomplete closure of the neural tube thus leading to the condition.

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Cerebral Palsy

Although Cerebral Palsy often leads to permanent movement disorders in the affected individuals it could also lead to other types of disabilities like sensory and intellectual disabilities.

Cerebral Palsy is a reverse of acquired brain injury in the sense that it is caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control movement, posture, and balance. This damage happens before birth while acquired brain injuries happen after birth. However, a small percentage of cerebral percentage is caused by brain damage after birth.

While brain damage is the main cause of cerebral palsy, babies born too small, too early or through in vitro fertilization are at risk of the condition.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disease that mostly affects the lungs and limits the ability to breathe. It also affects the digestive and reproductive system leading to severe constipation and male infertility.

Cystic Fibrosis is caused by a genetic mutation which involves a gene changing a protein that regulates the movement of salt in and out of the cells. The dysfunctional protein is unable to move chloride to the surface of cells which leads to a buildup of thick and sticky mucus in various organs of the body.

The thick mucus leads to digestive problems as it prevents the release of digestive enzymes that help the body absorb nutrients. The digestive problems result in malnutrition and poor growth which are some of the symptoms used to identify the condition.

Cystic Fibrosis is a complex condition and the severity of the symptoms differs from person to person. Although it is considered life threatening, people with the condition have been able to live normal lives due to advancement in medicine and the increased awareness of the disease.


Epilepsy (also called “seizure disorders”) is the fourth most common neurological disorder caused by a sudden burst of electrical activity in the brain. However, having a seizure doesn’t mean you have epilepsy. People with epilepsy are those who have unprovoked repeated seizures or have had a seizure with the likelihood of having more seizures. The condition can affect people of all ages and causes other health problems apart from the common issues caused by seizures.

Seizures usually lead to unusual movements, a change in behavior, loss of consciousness or odd sensations. Depending on the severity of the seizure, the individual could harm themselves or other people.

There are two type of seizures – Focal and Generalized seizures.

Focal seizures are as a result of abnormal activity in one part of the brain while generalized seizures are as a result of abnormal activity in all areas of the brain. Focal seizures are less severe and commonly mistaken for other neurological disorders due to the similarity in symptoms.

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Although the causes of epilepsy remain unknown, genetic influence, head trauma, brain injuries, brain infection, development disorders and brain damage before birth are factors that can cause epilepsy. 

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis is characterized by the wasting away of the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers. The damage leads to communication problems in the body as it affects the central nervous system i.e. the brain and spinal cord.

The symptoms of the disease vary from individual to individual with the most common symptoms being a weakness in one or more limbs, numbness in the limbs, tremor, fatigue, dizziness, blurry vision, and loss of vision in one eye (this could be partial or complete). 

Multiple Sclerosis affects individuals differently. In some individuals, it would lead to complete loss of mobility or partial loss of mobility. The progress of the disease would also be slow in some people and fast in others.

Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is a group of genetic-related disorders that lead to progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. It is caused by the interference of abnormal genes with the production of proteins needed to build healthy muscle.

There are over 30 different types of muscular dystrophy which have different symptoms. The condition is more common in boys than girls although both genders show the same symptoms.

Symptoms of the Duchenne type muscular dystrophy – the most common type of muscular dystrophy usually appear in early childhood. These symptoms include muscle pains, stiffness, learning disabilities, and frequent falls.

Symptoms of other types of muscular dystrophy could begin to show at adulthood or as late as age 40.

Muscle dystrophy could lead to complications like mobility disability, and breathing, heart, and swallowing problems.

Tourette Syndrome

Tourette syndrome is a lifelong neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics. There are several symptoms of Tourette syndrome with early symptoms appearing in early childhood. The symptoms are mostly severe with only a few people having the milder and fewer complex symptoms.

The symptoms include eye movements like blinking, shoulder shrugging, sniffing, throat clearing, grunting, coprolalia, echolalia, imitation someone’s else actions, hoping, bending, jumping, etc.

Many of the tic symptoms could appear helpful depending on the time it manifests, however, they are out of the individual’s control. Some symptoms of Tourette syndrome can be suppressed or managed but this usually leads to a buildup of tension in the individuals who believe that the tic must be expressed.

Tourette syndrome is often associated with other disorders like learning and intellectual disabilities which could lead to impairment. The condition itself doesn’t lead to impairment which is why it has no medication. However, medications like neuroleptics are used for tic suppression.

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The cause of Tourette syndrome is relatively unknown, however, genetic, neurochemical and environmental factors could be the likely causes of the condition.


Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in short stature. Adults with a height of 4 feet 10 inches or less and considered to be dwarfs.

There are two types of dwarfism – disproportionate and proportionate dwarfism. The difference between the two of them is the structure of some parts of the body with respect to other parts.

Dwarfism is caused by several genetic and medical conditions like achondroplasia, Turner syndrome, growth hormone deficiency, hypothyroidism, intrauterine growth retardation, and genetics. Complications like arthritis, sleep apnea, excess brain fluid, bowed legs, and progressive hunching of the back would arise from the condition.

Dwarfism doesn’t lead to intellectual or sensory disabilities, however, children with the condition may experience a delay in developing motor skills.


Polio (poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis) is an infectious disease caused by a virus – poliovirus. The disease sometimes leads to paralysis and/or deformity of the limbs. However, people can still have polio without it resulting in paralysis.

Symptoms of non-paralytic polio include headache, fever, sore throat, vomiting, fatigue and meningitis. Paralytic polio makes up only 1 percent of polio causes with symptoms like loss of reflexes, muscle pain, sudden paralysis, and deformed limbs.

Although paralysis due to polio can be temporary or permanent, it doesn’t necessarily affect the entire body. Polio is highly deadly as the virus could attack the muscles that aid breathing which will result in death. The condition can’t be cured, however, vaccination does offer protection.

Individuals who have recovered from polio can still have symptoms like joint weakness, sleep apnea, depression, muscle atrophy, fatigue, and muscle pain.

Prader-Willi Syndrome

Prader-Willi syndrome is a genetic disorder that leads to physical, mental and behavioral problems. The cause of the condition is relatively unknown, however, it is believed to be related to a mistake in the chromosomes. Head or brain injury could also cause the syndrome.

Common symptoms of the syndrome are usually fatigue, obesity, being hungry all the time, learning problems, mental problems like temper tantrums, sleep problems, and lack of adequate growth hormones.

People with the syndrome like to eat all the time as the condition affects the part of the brain that tells you when to eat and when you’re full. They normally feel hungry all the time and eat a lot which leads to complications like obesity and diabetes. 


Although Arthritis refers to joint inflammation, it is used to describe over 100 joint related issues and issues that affect the tissues surrounding the joints.

Common symptoms include aching, stiffness, swelling, and pain in the one or more joints. The condition is more common in older adult but it can affect younger people including children. Arthritis can impair someone’s ability to perform everyday tasks and lead to mobility disabilities.

Arthritis is caused by various factors like injury, metabolic abnormalities, infections, and several hereditary factors. Out of over 100 identified types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common types and affect more people than the rest.


Some physical disabilities can be prevented by making the right lifestyle choices, exercising regularly, eating healthy meals and stay off accident prone areas. For any type of disability, prevention is always better than the cure regardless of how effective the cure could be.

Physical disability that is characterized by impairment of the limbs and limits the affected person’s ability to perform normal functions or go back to their previous job would easily be approved for Social Security benefits.

Social Security benefits make life a lot easier for people with disabilities by offering them financial aid.

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