“It is very difficult to define a disabled person,” notes Evan J. Kemp Jr., chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “There are 43 federal definitions and literally thousands of state, county and local ones.” In the early 1980s Kemp, who himself is disabled, cynically defined the category as including everyone but the mythical American -- a 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pound, 28-year-old white male with no physical or mental impairments.
Congress' definition is significantly narrower than that but encompasses many more people than are normally considered disabled. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an individual is classified as disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities,” has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.
“The definition is broad,” concedes Sandra Swift Parrino, chairperson of the National Council on Disability, “but we didn't want to leave out populations. We wanted to include rather than to exclude.”
According to Congress' count, the ADA covers some 43 million people, or one in every six Americans. Other organizations, however, cite different numbers. For example, a survey published by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1984 estimated that there were more than 160 million people in the non-institutionalized population who suffer from chronic impairments. Yet in the 1980 census only 22.5 million people identified themselves as disabled.
Critics of the ADA object to the broad classification. They differentiate between people who are disabled through no fault of their own and others, such as substance abusers and those with AIDS, who, these critics say, brought maladies on themselves and are not deserving of anti-discrimination protections.
“If Americans knew that reformed alcoholics are considered disabled with the same status as other disabled, I think they'd be appalled,” says Walt Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “The definition is not the man-on-the- street definition of a disabled person. It opens the door to all kinds of problems -- including lawsuits.”
Although a definition of disability that would yield a precise count (either you're in or you're out) would appease the desire for precision and quantification, experts say it would negate an important component of this public policy: the understanding that disability itself is not always precise and perfectly quantifiable. Disabilities are not necessarily immutable characteristics, like sex and race. A particular disability may limit functioning in one situation, such as riding a bus, while having no impact in another, such as using a word processor.
Moreover, disabled people are by no means a homogeneous group; they differ markedly in extent of impairment and range of potential abilities. This point is often missed by non-disabled persons, who tend to lump most types of disability into a single “handicapped” category.
“Two people with the same disability may respond differently,” says Pat Morrissey, a disability consultant in Washington. “One may be disabled from birth -- and have a lifetime of appropriate support and coping strategies -- and not require special accommodations. Another with the same impairment may need extensive help.... Whereas employers want something finite, disability by nature is relative and personal.”
Among disabled persons of working age, estimates show that fewer than 10 percent of those with physical limitations use a wheelchair. Equally small proportions of people with visual and hearing impairments are actually blind or deaf, while only one out of 10 people with mental retardation is severely retarded. And among individuals with learning disabilities, many have conditions that may impede reading, writing or computation, but that otherwise do not interfere with their intellectual and reasoning capabilities.
Contrast this set of disabilities with the variety of work opportunities likely to arise over the coming decade, and the possibilities for job-matching become plain. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 90 percent of the new job openings through the year 2000 will be in information-intensive and service-intensive occupations. In these positions, brain power, not physical dexterity, will be the prime requirement.
Whatever the exact figure for the number of disabled, the overriding point is that the disability community is large -- and growing. At least 60 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 will experience a mental disorder during their lifetimes, according to government economists. And the explosive growth in the number of people with AIDS and HIV infection has already added hundreds of thousands more disabled to the population.