The Origins of “Disability” and its Application Under the ADA

Submitted by Paul Simmons on Thu, 11/14/2019


Being a logophile, a lover of words and their origins, I was drawn to investigating the phrase “print disability” when it appeared in the article, The Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Accessibility For The Blind by Forbes as published on October 8, 2019. I was curious as I had not come across this phrase before. By investigating further to pique my curious mind, I came across:

  • The Department of Education’s Taskforce 1 (Best Practices) in 2001 - Discussion of the Definition of “Print Disability”
    • The ADA does not define nor mention “print disability”;
    • AIM (Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities) states that “A print disability means, with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that limits the individual in seeing or reading;” and
  • Print disability? Library has the key from UC Berkeley in 2013
    • “The new system, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, allows students with print disabilities—conditions such as blindness, dyslexia, even paralysis that prevents them from turning the pages of a book—to request free conversion of a specific library book or journal.”

Being partly satisfied, my curiosity led me to check out the etymology—a chronological account of the birth and development of a particular word or element of a word and its evolving changes in form and meaning—of “Disabled.” I found that the word “disabled” had been in existence since 1570–80 as a combination of the prefix “dis-” which connotes “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force; and “ability” which connotes power or capacity to do or act physically, mentally, legally, morally, financially, etc. So, in short, disability is linked with the inability to do or act physically or mentally.

A related, yet less preferred word these days, “Handicapped” didn’t take on the “disabled” meaning until the early 20th century. The word handicap referred to a game called “hand in cap” that was popular around 1653 in the United Kingdom. It was a barter/betting game that involved two people exchanging items. By 1883, the word “handicap” started being used to mean “equalization” in many different areas other than sports.

The term “handicapped” was applied to disabled children by 1915 and was then used to describe all disabled persons—adults and children with physical or mental disabilities—by 1958. Today, the word “Handicapped” to describe people with disabilities is considered to be the equal of the “N” word. The word “Handicapped” is now referred to—by many within the Disability community—as the “H” word, as it brings to mind something that is being held back.

Now, one may wonder what disabilities are covered under the ADA and what is not. This is a tricky question that many advocates for various conditions may encounter while trying to determine what disabilities are covered under the ADA, and what is not covered. The ADA Definition of Disability defines a person with a disability as:

  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, e.g. someone with bi-polar disorder, diabetes or addiction to alcohol; or
  2. A history of an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, e.g. someone who has a history of cancer; or someone in recovery from illegal use of drugs; or
  3. Regarded as having such an impairment, e.g. someone who has a family member who has HIV, so is assumed to have HIV as well and faces discrimination as a result, or someone who is perceived to have a disability and is treated negatively based on the assumption of disability.

Major life activities include, but are not limited to: walking, seeing, caring for oneself, learning, working, thinking, communicating, and also the operation of bodily functions, such as neurological and brain functions.

The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with an individual with a disability.

Addiction to alcohol, whether current or in the past, it is generally considered a disability because it is an impairment that affects brain and neurological functions. About drug addiction, the ADA states that:

The ADA protects a person in recovery who is no longer currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, and who can show that they meet one of the three definitions of disability (see above).

Illegal use of drugs means:

  1. Use of illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
  2. Use of prescription medications such as OxyContin or Morphine by a person who has no prescription, is using more than is prescribed, or has a fraudulent prescription.

In recovery means:

  1. Is in recovery from a substance use disorder;
  2. Has ceased engaging in the illegal use of drugs;
  3. Is either participating in a supervised rehabilitation program; or
  4. Has been successfully rehabilitated.

The Job Accommodation Network’s A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations provides a comprehensive list of effective accommodations to different types of disabilities that both individuals and employers may encounter. This list is helpful in ensuring compliance with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In closure, I hope you enjoyed this journey to finding the origins of the word disability, and its application within the ADA.

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