What is a Physical Disability? - Definition & Types

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  • 0:01 What Is a Physical Disability?
  • 0:21 Types
  • 0:54 Categories of Daily Living
  • 4:09 Accomodations
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
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.

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.

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