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In this lesson, you will learn to define the term physical disability. We will also look at different types of physical disabilities as well as further explore categories for daily living as they pertain to people with physical disabilities.

What is a Physical Disability?

Simply stated, a physical disability is any type of physical condition that significantly impacts one or more major life activities. This is a pretty broad definition, but the types of physical disabilities, their causes, and the manner in which they impact a person’s life are wide-ranging and virtually limitless.

Types of Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can be the result of congenital birth issues, accidental injury, or illness. When you consider the huge number of possible causes of physical disabilities, you can quickly see how it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list naming each condition. Additionally, one physical condition might be considered disabling to one person but not the next. The key aspect in defining physical disability is not whether a person has a specific condition but how that physical condition impacts his or her daily life.

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Categories of Daily Living

Rather than attempt to provide a laundry list of disability types, let’s look at four distinct categories that represent key areas of daily life and talk about specific physical conditions that impact each category. Mobility, work tolerance, self-care, and communication are categories of daily living that tend to be impacted by significant physical disabilities. Each category is not mutually exclusive, so some physical disabilities will have an impact on multiple categories.


Mobility refers to how we move around in our environment. Whether it is walking to the refrigerator to get something to eat or driving each day to work, the ability to move ourselves around in our environment is important. For people with certain physical disabilities, mobility is significantly impaired.Imagine trying to navigate the world as a combat veteran returning to civilian life after experiencing the loss of your legs and an arm.

Without assistance, moving around in your own home, let alone the community, would be difficult if not impossible. It’s pretty safe to say that suffering such severe trauma to one’s extremities would result in a disabling situation as it pertains to mobility.

Work Tolerance

Work is an important aspect of American culture. Oftentimes work tolerance issues, like lifting, climbing, or standing, are impacted by the onset of a variety of medical conditions.Back impairments are quite common and are oftentimes the result of workplace injury.

A person who has experienced a significant back injury may be able to return to their job but maybe only in a limited capacity, if at all. Many people with back impairments can no longer, stand, lift, or climb like they were able to do prior to their injury. For the person accustomed to physical labor, suffering a back injury that limits or prohibits his or her ability to perform their old job duties can be a life-altering situation.


Self-care, or being able to do things like feed, dress, and bathe oneself, is an important part of being independent. For many people who have been diagnosed with a condition, such as muscular dystrophy, self-care can be a challenge.

People with muscular dystrophy experience significant physical impairments, such as muscle weakness and atrophy. Tasks that many people take for granted, such as brushing your teeth or taking a shower, can be difficult if not impossible for people with muscular dystrophy. The number of self-care tasks requiring coordinated muscle movement is a long list, so the impact of muscular dystrophy on self-care is far-reaching.


Most people would agree that being able to communicate is a critical aspect of daily life. Like the prior three categories, communication can be impacted by physical conditions.Visual and hearing impairments (i.

e. deafness and blindness) are the result of physical conditions that significantly impact the ability to see and hear, both important parts of human communication. Not to say that people who are deaf or blind cannot communicate, but their ability to communicate with people who are not deaf or blind can be challenging, if not impossible.


Accommodations are tools or strategies that allow people to minimize the impact that a physical condition has on a person’s daily life.

For example, you have probably seen prosthetic devices or power wheelchairs used by people who have experienced amputation to increase mobility. These are pretty common amongst people with mobility impairments. However, not all accommodations rely on advanced technology. Sometimes it is as simple as a change in work environment.For instance, being able to work in an office environment rather than on a factory floor for a person with a back injury would greatly diminish the impact of the back injury on work tolerance issues. Or, having a helping hand in the form of a personal care attendant to provide assistance with self-care tasks, like bathing and dressing, for a person with muscular dystrophy.

Also, communication accommodations, such as Braille and closed captioning, can accommodate communication impairments for people who are deaf or blind. Accommodations do not eliminate the physical condition, but they can make a big difference in minimizing or even eliminating the impact on daily life.Remember, physical disability is not defined by the presence of a certain medical condition but rather the impact that a medical condition has on important areas of daily life. Physical disability is a term that is individualized from person to person based on his or her unique life experiences.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. A physical disability can be defined as any physical condition that results in a significant impairment to activities of daily living.

The type of physical condition is not the primary factor when defining disability. The impact it has on daily life activities is what matters most.Two people can be diagnosed with the same condition but have very different experiences when it comes to the condition’s impact on daily life activities. Conditions such as limb amputations, back impairments, muscular dystrophy, blindness, and deafness are a few examples of physical disabilities that can significantly impact activities of daily living, such as communication, work tolerance, self-care, and mobility.

Quick Notes

There are many types of physical disabilities.
A physically disabled man
  • A physical disability is any physical condition that significantly impairs daily living.
  • A physical disability can be a result of an accident, genetics, or illness.
  • Physical disabilities have significant impacts on mobility, work-tolerance, self care, and communication.
  • Physical disabilities affect every person differently.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve finished reviewing this lesson on physical disabilities, find out how well-prepared you are to:

  • Recite the general description of a physical disability
  • Point out the types of disabilities
  • Discuss the effects of a physical disability on daily life, particularly in the areas of mobility, work tolerance, self-care, and communication
  • Consider the importance of accommodations for disabled populations

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