The United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries

Who are people with disabilities?

People with disabilities, 54 million according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2007), comprise a diverse population. Disability is experienced by all racial, social,economic, gender and age groups. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Public Law 101-336, defines disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual such as walking, speaking and breathing."

Types of Disabilities

The term "physical impairment" includes a tremendous range and variety of conditions. It covers spinal cord injuries, Spina Bifida and other congenital malformations. It also includes amputations, arthritis, muscular dystrophy and additional musculoskeletal conditions. Many physical impairments or disabilities can take the form of mobility impairment, a highly visible type of disability. An estimated 10% of people with mobility impairments use wheelchairs, and others use walkers, canes,braces or crutches.

A disability also can be a mental impairment such as chronic mental illness, or one of the developmental disabilities which include autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy and epilepsy or seizure disorder. An increasingly frequent type of neurological impairment is traumatic brain injury (formerly called head injury), most often caused by accidents.

And a disability can be a sensory impairment, such as blindness, low vision or other visual impairment, deafness,or being hard-of-hearing.

Disabilities are not Always Readily Apparent

Among the less readily apparent disability types are learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness. A chronic illness can persist for months or even years, and its severity may require persons to be hospitalized during periodic flare ups. The various types of chronic illnesses include diabetes, cystic fibrosis,hemophilia, disorders of the kidneys, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia,asthma and other severe allergies, Lupus, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiac conditions, osteoporosis, chronic back pain, cancer, HIV/AIDS and chemical sensitivities. Being consistently medically fragile also falls into this category.

A Wholeness of Spirit In a section called "This We Believe" in the book That All May Worship (rev. ed., 2005), the National Organization on Disability articulates the belief that God sees in persons with disabilities a wholeness of spirit, where our imperfect vision may see only brokenness of body or mind.

Revised edition September 2008
By Charlotte Hawkins Shepard, Ph.D., UMC Consultant, Disability Concerns