People with Disabilities are Experts
Full Participation
Cross-Disability Coalitions
Champions for your Cause
Defining Disability
Principle 5:

Defining Disability

Disability discrimination laws should not be defined purely in terms of a medical diagnosis

A young woman with a disability enjoys adaptive biking


Disability discrimination laws start with the understanding that people with disabilities are full human beings with the same potentials, capacities and worth as other human beings. They can recognize that people with disabilities need benefits because of inequality, but also recognize that the root of inequality lies in a long history of unequal economic, social and political opportunities for people with disabilities (not just the natural consequence of an individual’s medical diagnosis). Disability discrimination laws acknowledge the many factors, such as prejudice, stereotypes, misplaced pity and physical barriers that together have the consequence of stopping people with disabilities from achieving their highest potential. These laws should:

  • Explicitly acknowledge the existence of discrimination against people with disabilities
  • Recognize the disabling impact of longstanding physical, social, economic, political, and cultural barriers
  • Should not define disability purely in terms of a medical diagnosis

Different from disability discrimination laws are benefit laws, which almost always define disability using medical criteria, and focus on what people with disabilities cannot do. Many countries, including the U.S., have laws or policies that provide benefits, such as income support, low-cost healthcare, or other forms of assistance to people with disabilities and their families. These laws serve an important purpose and are needed by people with disabilities who do not have equal opportunities in such areas as employment, education, housing, and transportation. 


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a three-pronged definition of disability. The third prong, and to some extent the second, acknowledge how society itself can disable a person by treating them as if they have a physical or mental impairment, and therefore forcing them to deal with many barriers to their full participation in society.

  1. First prong: The most medically oriented, stating that disability is “the presence of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
  2. Second prong: States that disability includes having a history or a record of such a physical or mental impairment.
  3. Third prong: Recognizes that someone has a disability if he or she “is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
Reasonable Accommodations
Checks and Balances
Specific Regulations
No Rights without Remedies
Common Cause Across Social Movements

Download All Principles (English DOC / PDF)

Download All Principles (Español DOC / PDF)

Download All Principles (Tiếng Việt DOC / PDF)

Download All Principles (Հայերեն DOC / PDF)