The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

A disability is a physical, mental, cognitive, or sensory condition that hinders an individual's ability to perform one or more major life activities, either temporarily or permanently. Disabilities can be congenital, resulting from birth, or acquired due to illness, injury, or aging. Disabilities can be apparent, such as mobility challenges requiring the use of a wheelchair, or non-apparent (or invisible), like cognitive impairments or chronic illnesses.

Legal definitions of disability may vary by jurisdiction but generally focus on the individual's functional limitations in relation to societal standards and expectations. 

Different types of disabilities

Physical impairments

Physical impairments refer to a range of conditions that affect an individual's mobility, dexterity, or physical functioning. Physical impairments can be congenital, resulting from birth, or acquired due to illness, injury, or the natural aging process. Physical impairments can limit an individual's ability to move, perform daily tasks, or engage in activities that many take for granted. The severity of these impairments can vary widely, from mild limitations to profound disabilities that require extensive support or assistive devices.

Prevalent forms of physical impairments include, but are not limited to:

  • Mobility impairments: Conditions that affect an individual's ability to move, such as paralysis or amputation
  • Musculoskeletal disorders: Conditions like arthritis or osteoporosis that affect the bones, joints, and muscles
  • Neuromuscular disorders: Diseases such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis that impact the nerves and muscles
  • Chronic pain conditions: Persistent pain issues like fibromyalgia or chronic regional pain syndrome
  • Respiratory disorders: Conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that impact breathing

Sensory impairments

Sensory impairments include conditions that affect one or more of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. These impairments can significantly impact an individual's ability to receive information from the environment, leading to challenges in communication, mobility, and comprehension. Vision and hearing impairments are the most common forms of sensory disabilities. However, impairments can also affect ‌other senses. The causes of sensory impairments can be congenital, resulting from genetic factors or complications at birth, or acquired due to illness, injury, or aging.

Prevalent forms of sensory impairments include, but are not limited to:

  • Vision impairments: At least 2.2 billion people have a near or distance vision impairment. Among these, vision impairment that could have been prevented or is yet to be addressed is seen in at least 1 billion cases. The leading causes include refractive errors, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration 
  • Hearing impairments: Refers to a reduced ability to hear sounds, ranging from mild to profound. It can affect one or both ears, leading to challenges in understanding speech or loud noises. Common forms include 'hard of hearing', where individuals have mild to severe loss but communicate through spoken language, and 'deafness', where individuals have profound loss and often use sign language
  • Taste and smell impairments: These can result from various conditions, including neurological disorders, infections, and certain medications
  • Touch impairments: Conditions such as neuropathy can lead to reduced sensitivity to touch or pain

Mental impairments

Mental impairments predominantly affect an individual's emotional regulation, mood, and behavior. These disorders can arise from a combination of genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors and can significantly impact daily life, relationships, and overall well-being.

Prevalent forms of mental disabilities include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Anxiety disorders: Characterized by excessive fear and worry about various aspects of life, leading to physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and restlessness
  • Depression: A mood disorder causing persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Bipolar disorder: Individuals experience mood fluctuations, alternating between depressive episodes and periods of mania or elevated mood
  • Schizophrenia: A severe mental disorder affecting how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, often characterized by delusions and hallucinations
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Develops after exposure to traumatic events, leading to symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety

Cognitive disabilities

Cognitive disabilities refer to a diverse range of disorders that affect cognitive function, including memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. These disabilities are distinct from mental impairments, although there can be overlap. The confusion between the two often arises because both can impact thought processes. However, while mental impairments primarily concern emotional regulation and behavior, cognitive disabilities focus on difficulties in acquiring and processing information.

Prevalent forms of cognitive impairments include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Dementia: A term for several diseases that affect memory, thinking, and daily activities. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, contributing to 60–70% of cases. There are more than 55 million people in the world who have dementia
  • Learning disabilities: Disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI): Cognitive impairments resulting from brain injury, which can affect memory, attention, and executive functions
  • Stroke: Strokes can lead to cognitive deficits, especially in areas like attention, memory, and executive functions

Speech disabilities

Speech disabilities pertain to challenges in producing speech sounds or problems with voice quality. They can manifest as difficulties in articulating words, hoarseness, pitch fluctuations, or even stuttering. These challenges can arise from physical abnormalities, neurological disorders, or traumatic events. It is essential to differentiate speech disabilities from language disorders. While speech disabilities focus on the act of producing sounds, language disorders involve difficulties in understanding or using language.

Prevalent forms of speech disabilities include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Articulation disorders: Difficulties in producing sounds in syllables or saying words incorrectly to the point that listeners can't understand what's being said
  • Fluency disorders: Problems such as stuttering, in which the flow of speech is interrupted by abnormal stoppages, partial-word repetitions, or prolonging sounds and syllables
  • Resonance or voice disorders: Problems with the pitch, volume, or quality of the voice that distract listeners from what's being said. These types of disorders may also cause pain or discomfort for the speaker
  • Expressive disorders: Difficulty putting words together, limited vocabulary, or inability to use language in a socially appropriate way

The proper terminology for people with disabilities

For years, the disability community has faced discrimination in various forms. One subtle yet pervasive manifestation of this discrimination has been through improper or disparaging labeling of their conditions. Such terminology not only perpetuates negative stereotypes but also diminishes the individuality and worth of people with disabilities. 

Terms like "handicapped" or "disabled person", for example, are now considered outdated and can further these negative perceptions. In contrast, "person with a disability" or "individual with a vision impairment" are more accepted as they emphasize the person before their disability. It is essential to remain knowledgeable of the terminology that is accepted and preferred by the disability community.

Adopting person-first language fosters a more inclusive environment and aligns with the preferences of many within the disability community, ensuring that language does not inadvertently perpetuate biases or prejudices.

What laws exist to protect people with disabilities?

Laws protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities have been established globally to ensure equal opportunities, prevent discrimination, and promote inclusivity. These laws vary by region but share a common goal: to create a just and equitable society where individuals with disabilities can thrive. Some prominent laws include:

American laws:

Additionally, many states have their own laws that further bolster the rights and protection of people with disabilities. These include, but are not limited to:

Canadian laws:

European laws:

  • Equality Act 2010 (UK): Prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates reasonable accommodations in the workplace and public spaces
  • European Accessibility Act (EAA): Aims to improve accessibility of products and services in the EU, benefiting persons with disabilities and the elderly

Disability laws' application to online environments

In the digital age, ensuring online accessibility is paramount. As the internet becomes integral to daily life, it's crucial that all individuals, including those with disabilities, have equal access to online content. Various laws globally mandate that online platforms, especially websites, are accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. Some laws point to specific guidelines as their standard for web accessibility compliance. These standards are known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Under the ADA:

While it doesn’t include specific information pertaining to websites, many U.S courts apply the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the online domain. Therefore, businesses that are considered public accommodations (a categorization that applies to almost all businesses) need to ensure their websites are accessible under the ADA. The Department of Justice, in an official letter, has referenced WCAG as the standard websites should conform to under the ADA. Additionally, U.S. courts have pointed to WCAG as the standard websites should conform to in cases pertaining to web accessibility under the ADA.

Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act:

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that government bodies, organizations receiving federal funding, and service providers to such organizations make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible. Section 508 sets WCAG as its standard for compliance.

Under the AODA:

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) explicitly requires Ontario-based organizations to make web content accessible in line with WCAG standards. Simliarly to Section 508, the AODA sets WCAG as its standard for compliance.

Under the EAA:

The European Accessibility Act (EAA) emphasizes the accessibility of websites and mobile applications in the EU. While it doesn't directly prescribe WCAG, the guidelines are often used as a benchmark for ensuring online platforms meet accessibility requirements.

Under the Equality Act 2010:

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 obliges service providers, including website operators, to ensure accessibility. While the Act doesn't specify WCAG, these guidelines are commonly referenced as the standard for ensuring web accessibility for people with disabilities.

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