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What is a disability? : Disability sub-module 1 of 5

Disability is common in our post-secondary institutions and it’s important that we have an understanding of what it means. Disability is a complex and continually evolving concept that covers a range of different conditions, and there is no single, all-encompassing definition. Disability typically means someone experiences physical, mental or sensory barriers that impact their day to day life. Having a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t do a job, it just means that you might do the job differently. When we are able to see disability as the opportunity to remove barriers, everyone will benefit.

Visible or Non-Visible?

Disability is not static or linear; it can be:

  • Visible or not visible
  • Mild, moderate, or severe
  • Permanent, long-term, short-term or episodic
  • Present from birth, caused by an accident, or developed over time

Visible Disability:

  • When the nature or degree of disability is visible to others, for example:
    • mobility-related impairments

Non-Visible Disability:

  • When the nature or degree of disability is invisible to others, for example:
    • chronic fatigue syndrome
    • mental health condition
    • learning disability
  • Conditions could simply not be apparent to the unknowing eye, or the conditions might remain hidden because they are episodic, for example:
    • epilepsy
    • environmental sensitivities
  • Other disabilities may only become apparent through interacting with an individual and could take multiple interactions, for example:
    • hearing loss
    • learning disability
  • Conditions may never be apparent, for example:
    • mental health diagnoses

Did You Know?

According to research by the David C. Onley Initiative:

  • There were 9,400 students in the city of Ottawa's four post-secondary institutions registered with these schools’ disability services offices during the 2017–2018 school year.
  • 52% of students registered with disability service offices across the four Ottawa post-secondary schools had a primary diagnosis of either a learning disability or a mental illness (David C. Onley Initiative, 2019).

People with disabilities represent a significant portion of our population. They include students in our post-secondary institutions and our current and future workforce. A large percentage of those people have disabilities that are not visible. It is valuable to learn about visible and non-visible disabilities, challenge our personal biases, and improve our understanding to help create an inclusive and accessible future.

Types of Disabilities

Below are some common types of disabilities and their associated impacts on the job.

Can affect a person’s motor skills and may require the use of a mobility aid.


  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Narcolepsy

Can affect a person’s senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch, or taste.


  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Chemical Sensitivities

Can affect a person’s ability to learn and use information, creating limitations in reasoning, learning, and problem solving, as well as social and practical skill- building known as adaptive behaviours


  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Down syndrome
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Can affect the way a person takes in, stores, or uses information. Learning disabilities can affect a person’s oral and written language, reading skills, mathematics skills, organization, or social skills.


  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Auditory Processing Disorder

Can affect a person’s mental alertness, concentration, organization, and anxiety levels.


  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Bi-polar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia