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Serving Victims With Disabilities

Defining Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Public Law 101-336) describes a person with a disability as a person who—

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

ADA's regulation does not specify all the diseases or conditions that are covered as disabilities. It is simply impossible to identify every disability that could potentially be covered under the regulation. For this toolkit, the phrase "individuals with disabilities" refers to all individuals covered under the ADA definition. It is important to state from the outset, however, that some individuals do not consider themselves to be individuals with disabilities. For example, individuals who are deaf may identify themselves as part of a Deaf culture that embodies a community with its own language and values, rather than as part of a population with a disability. (The lowercase [deaf] is generally used when referring to the physical condition of not hearing, and the uppercase [Deaf] is used when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a common language and culture, such as individuals who use American Sign Language.55

Disability transcends age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, religion, and gender. Not only are there differences in the type and severity of disabilities, there also are differences in disabilities based on the age of onset and how sexual assault victims live with their disabilities.

Within this toolkit, the term "disability" includes the following:

  • Physical disabilities: May result from injuries (e.g., spinal cord injuries, amputation) or chronic diseases (e.g., multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis) or may be congenital disabilities.
  • Sensory disabilities: Includes people who are blind or partially sighted, deaf or hard-of-hearing, or people who have a combination of visual and hearing impairments.
  • Mental disabilities: Includes developmental conditions (e.g., intellectual disabilities), cognitive impairment (e.g., traumatic brain injury), or mental illness.56 Not all developmental disabilities affect cognitive abilities (e.g., cerebral palsy may result in physical rather than mental impairment).
  • Multiple disabilities: Includes a combination of speech, hearing, physical, visual, cognitive, and/or psychiatric disabilities. Sensory impairments may include a speech or language disorder, a visual disability or blindness, and a hearing disability or deafness. Speech and language disorders refer to difficulties with communication. Some causes of speech and language disorders include hearing loss, neurological disorders, brain injury, intellectual disability, drug abuse, or physical disabilities.
Handicap or Disability?

Handicap is not a synonym for disability. Disability refers to a physical, sensory, or mental limitation that interferes with a person's ability to move, see, hear, or learn. Handicap refers to a condition or barrier imposed by the environment, society, or oneself. As such, physical and programmatic barriers that interfere with a person's access to people and services constitute a handicap to a person with a disability.

Source: Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, IndependenceFirst, 2004, Accessibility Guide for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Service Providers, 4.