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What is Disability?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person is considered to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the following:

Major life activities

  • seeing
  • hearing
  • speaking
  • lifting and carrying
  • using stairs
  • walking

Activities of daily living

  • getting around inside the home
  • getting in or out of a bed or chair
  • bathing
  • dressing
  • eating
  • toileting

Instrumental activities of daily living

  • going outside the home
  • keeping track of money or bills
  • preparing meals
  • doing light housework
  • using the telephone

This definition was created to determine non-discrimination and public assistance policies. But in terms of how accessibility affects those who use computers, the definition can be broadened to include children, whose mental and motor skills have not fully developed, people with temporary disabilities, and older people whose physical, mental, and motor skills may be temporarily or permanently affected by varying degrees of impairment. Additionally, people operating under time constraints, people with repetitive stress injuries, near or farsighted people not wearing corrective lenses, the colorblind, and international users are likely to appreciate attention given to accessibility.

Of the 20 million Americans aged 15 and over with work disabilities, 2.3 million use the Internet either at home or elsewhere (Kaye, H.S. Computer and Internet Use Among People with Disabilities. Disability Statistics Report (13); Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. 2000). This is a significant number of users whose needs are not being considered often enough as we design software and websites. This oversight not only affects disabled users, but it also prevents many companies and agencies from reaching the audiences that may be most interested in their information and products. As we broaden the definition of “disabled” to include the groups mentioned above, it is clear that designing with accessibility in mind is really part of usable design for everyone.