How do you know if you are physically disabled?

Please see disclaimer at the end for information about the social model of disability.

This is a question that is much more complex than you may expect, for a variety of reasons. Many people assume that to be physically disabled, you must be receiving government benefits related to your disability (such as social security disability insurance or SSDI). This is not the case. 

As per the World Health Organization (WHO) via the Center for Disease Control (CDC)1, disability is defined as: 

“1) Impairment in a person’s body structure or function, or mental functioning; examples of impairments include loss of a limb, loss of vision or memory loss.

2) Activity limitation, such as difficulty seeing, hearing, walking, or problem solving.

3) Participation restrictions in normal daily activities, such as working, engaging in social and recreational activities, and obtaining health care and preventive services.”

That said- for the purpose of this, we will be working more under the medical model of disability.

Disability essentially means that your functioning is limited due to health condition(s) or injury. This can be long-term or short-term, static or dynamic. Some examples of this include:

  • An individual who broke their leg would have a temporarily but static disability. Their ability to walk would be limited, and assuming that they were in a hard cast for the duration of the healing process, it would be the same limitations (roughly) day to day. Assuming that the break was able to fully heal with no long-term impacts, they would resume their normal functioning, no longer experiencing disability relating to their formerly broken leg.
  • Someone with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) would have a long-term (or chronic), but dynamic, disability. Their disability would change, depending on the day/week, for a variety of reasons (though for some folks with RA, it can be more static than for others). There is no cure for RA at this time, so their disability would be chronic.
  • If someone is dealing with COVID, their illness could (though is not always) be short-term but could vary day to day in symptoms and severity. Assuming they made a full recovery, their disability would be short-term and dynamic.
  • Someone with an amputation would have a long-term, static disability- though pain may vary day to day, the overall disability would may not change significantly.

With all of these, and any disability, it is important to remember that there is some variance for everyone day to day, but these rough estimates are meant to give a general idea of what different types of disability can look like.

So, it is clear that disability IS a very complex and nuanced issue, varying from individual to individual, and even within each individual sometimes moment to moment. At the very base level, though- if you deal with limitations relating to your body due to a physical illness, injury or impairment, you may very likely be disabled. Identifying as disabled (or other terminology relating to your health status), is a separate issue that we will also discuss elsewhere.

Something that is very important to remember when exploring the idea that you may be physically disabled, is to remember that knowledge really CAN be power. If you determine that you are disabled, it will better allow you to advocate for yourself in a variety of spaces (school, work, even personal life). You can explore, with the appropriate medical professionals, whether there are additional tools (rollators, wheelchairs, medications, etc.), can help improve your quality of life. Being disabled in a society that is deeply ableist often DOES create deep grief that is incredibly valid. But that grief (or other challenging emotion it may bring up), can coexist with the relief, comfort, joy, and community that the knowledge can bring, as well. 

Disclaimer: I do want to note that the above is through the lens of the medical model for disability, NOT the social model. That is a very nuanced topic, and there are a lot of individuals who have spoken very eloquently about that. To read more about the social model of disability, please see this article2: 

Video3 here: 



  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability and Health Overview. ND, NA,1,%2C%20walking%2C%20or%20problem%20solving.
  2. Goering S. (2015). Rethinking disability: the social model of disability and chronic disease. Current reviews in musculoskeletal medicine, 8(2), 134–138. 
  3. No Author [Shape Arts]. (2017, November 28). Social Model of Disability. YouTube.