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Understanding Disability

Let’s explore disability as a concept. Before sharing this definition, we ask that you reflect on your personal understanding of disability by answering the following questions:

  1. What messages did you receive growing up about disabilities?
  2. What messages do you receive now about people with disabilities?

Let’s take some time to reflect on the statistics regarding Iowans below.

  • About 1 in 4 Iowa adults, or about 725,667 adult Iowans, have a disability.
  • An additional 14% of youth identify as having a physical, mental, or emotional disability, or impairment that limits their daily activities.
  • Persons with disabilities include every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, and more.
  • Many people are born with disabilities, and they can be acquired through accident, illness, or the aging process.
  1. What stands out to you when reading these statistics?
  2. What are some ways in which you might have been unintentionally insensitive to people with disabilities?


Disabilities can be visible and/or invisible.

A visible disability can be noticed by an individual with their naked eye and by just looking at the person.

Invisible Disability, as described by Disabled World “or hidden disability, is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. Invisible disabilities, or hidden disabilities, are defined as disabilities that are not immediately apparent. Some people with visual or auditory disabilities who do not wear glasses or hearing aids, or discreet hearing aids, may not be obviously disabled. Some people who have vision loss may wear contacts. Individuals often judge others by what they observe and often determine a person can or cannot do something by how they look.



This is not a list of resources but a guide for how to approach and use those resources to further your own education, understanding, and action.

Build your knowledge on this term. - become more educated/informed about a social issue, a community of people, the historical roots of systemic inequality, how systems and institutions reflect and maintain racial and socio-economic hierarchies, theory, data, and storytelling about an issue


Take a few minutes to review the definitions found in the Key Terms below.


Read the article “We Need More Doctors With Disabilities” by Nathan Kohrman.

The Iowa Department of Human Rights provides guidelines in using affirmative words (PDF) when communicating with people with disabilities and ideas on how to be more inclusive to people with disabilities (PDF). For a personal perspective, read the Credo of Support (PDF), a poem written by Norman Kunc on how to support people with disabilities.



Watch the DISABILITY | How You See Me video. (3:00)

Watch the Ted Talk with Judith Heumann as she speaks to “our fight for disability rights and why we’re not done yet.” For more than 30 years, Judith Heumann has been involved on the international front working with disabled people’s organizations and governments around the world to advance the human rights of people with disabilities. (21:15)

Watch a video from the Move to Include series on IowaPBS. Move to Include is the multi-platform public media initiative designed to promote inclusion for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The initiative looks to inspire and motivate people to embrace different abilities and include all people in every aspect of community life. (various videos ranging from 2:36 to 1:30:00).

Watch CUT’S Disability Watch video, Kids Meet a Guy with Muscular Dystrophy. (5:08)

Increase proximity or engagement - have more personal experiences with the social issue or community you are learning about which, for those of us this may mean going outside of our own segregated communities where these issues have not been visible

Student Disability Services at Drake: SDS facilitates academic accommodations and services for students with disabilites to ensure everyone has equal access to educational opportunities.  Equal access to education is achieved when barriers to learning are removed. SDS strives to ensure a learning environment to empower students to succeed based on their own efforts and intiatiative. SDS staff are here to help work with students, alongside faculty and staff to ensure the success and inclusion of all students. 

Best Buddies:  Best Buddies International is the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted solely to providing opportunities for friendships, jobs, and leadership for people with IDD. There are 41 chapters, from elementary school to university, around the state of Iowa. Here at Drake, we match people with IDD with fellow Bulldogs and create one-to-one friendships. : Establish a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).


Engage in critical and continuous reflection - creating meaning from the knowledge and proximity through critical thinking that explores one's personal experience of and role in systemic inequality as well as one's understanding of what change could look like and how to do it as an individual and in community with others

On-going learning (especially in groups) can be a form of ongoing action. How can you learn more about the thing you are interested in? For instance, if you learned about police brutality, can you find some history of that issue in the United States or wherever you are?

  • Can you take a free online class or attend a public event about that issue?
  • Can you find another book, movie, podcast, etc. to consume to increase your understanding?
  • Can you find people working on this and join their movement? Can you volunteer?

Want to lead a discussion on this topic? Find the Facilitator's Guide here!



Key Terms

Abled – Bodied: Please not this may be a term to avoid. Refers to a person who does not have a disability. The term implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well.

NCDJ Recommendation: The term “non-disabled,” and the phrases “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability” are more neutral choices.

: In the case of a facility, readily usable by a particular individual; in the case of a program or activity, presented or provided in such a way that a particular individual can participate, with or without auxiliary aid(s); in the case of electronic resources, accessible with or without assistive computer technology.

Accommodation: An adjustment to make a program, facility, or resource accessible to a person with a disability.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): A comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, public accommodations and services operated by private entities, and telecommunications.

Braille: System of embossed characters formed by using a Braille cell, a combination of six dots consisting of two vertical columns of three dots each. Each simple Braille character is formed by one or more of these dots and occupies a full cell or space. Some Braille may use eight dots.

Captioning: Text that is included with video presentations or broadcasts that enables people with hearing impairments to have access to the audio portion of the material.

Hearing impairments: Complete or partial loss of ability to hear caused by a variety of injuries or diseases including congenital defects.

Mobility impairment: Disability that affects movement ranging from gross motor skills such as walking to fine motor movement involving manipulation of objects by hand.

Physical or mental impairment: Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).

Sensory impairment: A disability that affects touch, sight and/or hearing.

Speech impairment: Problems in communication and related areas such as oral motor function, ranging from simple sound substitutions to the inability to understand or use language or use the oral-motor mechanism for functional speech.

Universal design: Designing programs, services, tools, and facilities so that they are useable, without modification, by the widest range of users possible, taking into account a variety of abilities and disabilities.

Source: DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology)

National Center on Disability and Journalism



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