Discover the Different Types of Disability Using this Helpful Infographic

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Inside: Whether you want to learn more about those around you or you’re wondering if you can receive SSDI, read on to discover the different types of disability.


The World Bank states that 15% of the world’s population experiences some type of disability. In other words, a 35-year-old has a one-in-two chance of becoming disabled for a 90 day period before the age of 65. 

In addition, according to a study done by the University of New Hampshire, “If people with disabilities were a formally recognized minority group, at 19% of the population, they would be the largest minority group in the United States.”

So why are we continuously left out of the conversation?

Furthermore, while disability may not affect you at this moment, there’s an increasing chance that as you age you’ll become disabled.  

Types of Disability

Take it from me.

I never imagined that I’d have a life-threatening disease at 26-years-old and quit working by 29. My life, specifically my financial situation, was ill-equipped to handle something like this. Once I realized I needed disability insurance, it was too late.

Overall, I’ve learned a lot about the different types of disability and what I could have done differently…

So whether you want to learn more about those around you or you’re wondering if you can receive SSDI, read on to discover the different types of disability.

What is a disability? 

A basic understanding of disability is that a person’s body does not function, on average, in a way that’s typical for most other people. To be considered “disabled”, the impairment must limit daily activities.

Disability is nuanced, meaning that two people can experience the same disability in totally different ways. It’s important to understand that each person’s disability is unique to them.

According to the Social Security Administration, a disability is defined as, “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” The SSA’s Blue Book provides information on eligible conditions to receive disability benefits, as well as how to apply for benefits.

What are the different types of disability?

There are different ways to categorize disabilities depending on the specificity that you want to use. Many types of disability will fall into multiple categories. See below for a basic breakdown of types of disability:

  • Physical Impairments
  • Developmental Disabilities 
    • Intellectual Disabilities 
  • Vision Impairments
  • Hearing Impairments
  • Invisible Disabilities 
  • Psychological Disabilities 

Physical Impairments

Perhaps the most straightforward disabilities are physical impairments. A physical disability is any limitation on a person’s physical functioning, mobility, dexterity or stamina. These types of disabilities are highly individualized and will be different for everyone. 

There are two main types of physical disability: Musculoskeletal Disability and Neuromuscular Disability

Musculoskeletal Disability

Musculoskeletal disorders generally include amputations, fractures, joints and spinal disorders. Many of these types of disorders improve with time. In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you will need to demonstrate that your disability has lasted or is expected to last twelve months or more.

Types of musculoskeletal disorders include:
  • Amputation
  • Anterior Poliomyelitis
  • Apert syndrome
  • Avascular Necrosis
  • Back Pain
  • Bone Spurs
  • Bursitis
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Club Foot Deformity
  • Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
  • Degenerative Disc Disease
  • Degenerative Joint Disease
  • Dwarfism
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Fracture of the Femur, Tibia, or Pelvis
  • Fracture of an Upper Extremity
  • Gout
  • Hernia
  • Herniated Disc
  • Hip Pain and Related Disorders
  • Hip Replacement
  • Inflammatory Arthritis
  • Joint Pain
  • Knee Pain and Related Disorders
  • Knee Replacement
  • Low Birth Weight
  • Lumbar Stenosis
  • Lyme Disease
  • Major Dysfunction of a Joint
  • Nerve Root Compression
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Neck Pain and Neck Problems
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteomalacia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Paralysis
  • Piriformis Syndrome
  • Reflex Sympathetic Disorder
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Ruptured Disc
  • Scoliosis
  • Shoulder Pain and Shoulder Problems
  • Shoulder Replacement
  • Soft Tissue Injury (Burns)
  • Spina Bifida
  • Spinal Arachnoiditis
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Spinal Fusion
  • Spine Disorders
  • Torn ACL
  • Undifferentiated and Mixed Connective Tissue Disease
  • Whiplash
Neuromuscular Disability

Neuromuscular disabilities (like mine) are defined as the inability to perform controlled movements of affected body parts due to diseases, degeneration or disorder of the nervous system. Nerve cells send electrical impulses from the brain to the muscle. When this communication is interrupted, the nerve cells (neurons) die, and the muscles atrophy. Neuromuscular disabilities are usually progressive and will not get better over time. 

Types of neuromuscular disorders include:
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Myopathy
  • Myositis, including polymyositis and dermatomyositis
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Spinal muscular atrophy

Developmental Disability 

Developmental disability is an umbrella term that includes people with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities. Developmental disabilities begin before the age of 22 and affect cognitive functioning, physical functioning or both. According to the CDC, “About one in six children in the U.S. have one or more developmental disabilities or other developmental delays.”

There are many different subsets of disabilities under developmental disabilities. As of 2016, 7.37 million people in the United States had intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

Some examples of developmental disabilities include: autism, cerebral palsy, Spina Bifida and Angelman Syndrome. 

Intellectual Disability 

Approximately 6.5 million people in the United States have an intellectual disability. An intellectual disability is a subset of developmental disabilities, in which a person has limited reasoning, learning and problem solving skills. These limited capabilities can significantly impact a person’s daily living and functioning. People with intellectual disabilities commonly have a hard time communicating and socializing with others. 

A person meets the criteria for an intellectual disability if he/she:
  1. Has an IQ below 70
  2. Onset began before age 18
  3. Has significant limitations in two or more adaptive areas (such as skills needed to live, work, and play in the community)

Intellectual disabilities vary dramatically from mild to severe and present before the age 18-years-old. The most common causes of intellectual disability are: genetics, trauma before or after birth, malnutrition, environmental factors or no known cause. 

According to MedicinePlus.gov, “Intellectual disability affects about 1% to 3% of the population. There are many causes of intellectual disability, but doctors find a specific reason in only 25% of cases.”

The most common intellectual disabilities include Fragile X Syndrome, Down Syndrome, developmental delays, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder.

Vision Impairment 

A person with a vision impairment has vision loss that impedes their ability to see and does not get better with the help of glasses or surgery.  

In the U.S., there are four terms used to describe different levels of vision impairment and blindness—partially sighted, low vision, legally blind and totally blind.

  • Partially Sighted – partial vision in one or both eyes
  • Low Vision – Visual acuity is lower than 20/70 in the better seeing eye and cannot be corrected with glasses 
  • Legally Blind – Visual acuity is lower than 20/200 in the better seeing eye and cannot be corrected with glasses
  • Totally Blind – No vision at all

According to Medicine Net, Worldwide, between 300 million and 400 million people are visually impaired due to various causes. Of this group, approximately 50 million people are totally blind, unable to see light in either eye. Eighty percent of blindness occurs in people over 50 years old.

To see if you qualify for vision impairment disability benefits, check out the SSA’s 2.00 Special Senses and Speech – Adult.

Hearing Impairment

According to Starkey, by the time we reach 65, one in three of us will have a hearing impairment. It is estimated that by 2050 over 900 million people – or one in every ten people – will have disabling hearing loss.

Hearing impairments are classified by what part of the hearing process is affected. There are two types of hearing impairments: 

  • Sensorineural Hearing Impairment – Sensorineural hearing impairment is the most common and involves problems with the inner ear and hearing nerve. 
  • Conductive Hearing Impairment – A conductive hearing impairment involves problems with the external or middle ear and rarely results in total deafness. 

Hearing loss may result from genetic causes, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, the use of particular drugs, exposure to excessive noise and ageing. 

The World Health Organization defines disabling hearing loss as hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear in adults and a hearing loss greater than 30 dB in the better hearing ear in children. 

‘Hard of hearing’ refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe. People who are hard of hearing usually communicate through spoken language and can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices as well as captioning. People with more significant hearing losses may benefit from cochlear implants.

‘Deaf’ people mostly have profound hearing loss, which implies very little or no hearing. They often use sign language for communication.

The SSA’s impairment listing 2.10 states the requirements for automatically being granted disability benefits for hearing loss. To qualify for disability benefits for hearing loss (without cochlear implants), you must meet either the audiometry or the word recognition tests.

Psychological Disability

A psychological disability is any persistent psychological disorder, emotional or mental illness that impairs educational, social, or vocational functioning, as diagnosed by a mental health professional.

Everyone experiences some degree of instability in their thoughts and feelings from time to time. However, psychological disabilities inhibit a person’s relationships, occupation, health, learning, self-care and legal matters. 

The effects of psychological disabilities can be temporary or long-lasting. According to the University of Texas at Austin’s Services for Students with Disabilities, “A majority of psychological/mood disorders first appear in late adolescence or early adulthood (ages 18-25).”

Psychological disabilities can be comorbid, which means that they occur along with another disorder. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder. The prognosis is usually decided by looking at the severity of the disability, how long it has occurred, and whether there will be a long-term or permanent impairment.

Psychological disabilities (mental illnesses) appear in Section 12.00 of SSA disability guidelines.

Types of psychological disabilities include:
  • Manic depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-Compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders

Invisible Disability

An invisible disability is one that’s not immediately apparent from looking at someone but limits his/her physical, psychological or social functioning. The term “invisible disability” refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, mental health disorders and hearing and vision impairments.

It is estimated that 10% of people in the U.S. have a medical condition which could be considered a type of invisible disability. While not always obvious, invisible disabilities can limit daily activities and range from mild challenges to severe limitations.

Invisible disabilities can include chronic illnesses such as renal failure, diabetes, and sleep disorders if those diseases significantly impair normal activities of daily living. According to Disabled-World, “96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an illness that is invisible.”

Types of invisible disabilities include:
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Psychological Disorders
  • Chronic and Acute Pain
  • Balance Disorders

Invisible disabilities are often not listed in the SSA’s Blue Book and it may be more difficult to prove. If you have an invisible disability and can’t work, the best route to prove that you are eligible is to provide the SSA with a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.

Sources: 

The World Bank Group. “DISABILITY INCLUSION.” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

The Council for Disability Awareness. “Disability Statistics.” 2018. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

The Social Security Administration (SSA). “Disability Evaluation Under Social Security.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

UNH.EDU. “Report Finds Significant Health Disparities for People with Disabilities.” 2011. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Disability Scoop. “1 In 6 Voters Has A Disability. Why Don’t Candidates Campaign For Their Support?” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

The Social Security Administration (SSA). “Musculoskeletal Disorders and Social Security Disability.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Developmental Disabilities.” 2019. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

INARF. “Disability Data Digest 2018.” 2018. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Special Olympics. “Autism.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Medline Plus. “Intellectual disability.” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

MedicineNet. “Intellectual disability.” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

The Social Security Administration (SSA). “2.00 Special Senses and Speech – Adult.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Starkey. “Types and Causes of hearing loss.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

World Health Organization. “Deafness and hearing loss.” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Disability Secrets. “Hearing Loss: When Does Social Security Award Disability?” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

UTexas.EDU. “Psychological Disabilities.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Study. “Psychological Disability: Definition & Concept.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

The Social Security Administration (SSA). “12.00 Mental Disorders – Adult.” Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Disabled World. “Invisible Disabilities: List and General Information.” 2020. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

Disability Benefits Center. “Applying for Benefits with an Invisible Disability.” 2016. Web Accessed October 10, 2020. ↩︎

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Allie Schmidt
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Allie Schmidt is a rare disease advocate and disabled mom living with motor neuron disease. She founded Disability Dame in 2020 to provide tips to other moms living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

In her spare time, you can find her traveling with her husband (she's been to 38 states and 16 countries!), watching reruns of Survivor, or tending to her near-constant sunburn from spending too much time outside. You can follow her adventures here.

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