Definition of Disability

What is a “disability” for legal purposes?

“Disability” is the basis of many legal rights for PWP’s and their caregivers. A starting point for knowing your rights is thus understanding what it means to be a person with disability (PWD) for legal purposes.

  • PWPs often describe themselves in terms of “disability.” For example, I am: “disabled,” “applying for disability,” “on disability,” or “retired on disability.” Hidden behind such common sense uses of the term “disability” are what the PWP may later learn, sometimes too late, a number of nuanced legal definitions.
  • In fact, your legal rights related to disability will in large part hinge on the definition of “disability” used in the law or contract involved.
  • Rather than proceeding as if there was a single, common sense definition of “disability,” PWPs, their caregivers and their advisors need to be aware of the various definitions of “disability.” Without such awareness, a PWP risks taking positions with respect to one source of legal rights that may preclude, or at least unduly complicate, attempts to secure benefits under other sources of rights.
  • For many PWDs, especially those with relatively stable conditions or impairments, a determination of disability for a particular legal purpose may not raise such complications. With progressive conditions, however, a person might over time meet different definitions of “disability.” The various definitions of “disability” (and other terms) thus become especially important in cases of progressive diseases such as Parkinson’s.
  • Moreover, certain rights might require a showing of something other than “disability” but seem very similar; e.g. the right to those eligible to take leave under the FMLA must demonstrate that s/he is unable to work because the employee or the employee’s family member has been diagnosed with a serious health condition. Parkinson’s may qualify as a chronic serious health condition under 29 C.F.R. § 825.115.

Content for this section provided by Mark Rubin, J.D.

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