People with disabilities are considered by many to be the largest minority group in the United States. In October we are celebrating the contributions of people with disabilities in the workforce. This is also a time to educate others about this important sector of our community.

Disabled or Differently Abled?


Some people prefer the term “disabled” and some prefer “differently abled.”  Differently abled was designed to have a positive basis and to emphasize that many people with disabilities are capable of accomplishing the same things as non-disabled people are, at times done in a different way. However, many find the term “differently abled” offensive because everyone has different abilities and different ways of doing things. To some the term can imply that there is one “normal” way, body, or state of being.



Motivated by the return of World War II veterans with disabilities, in 1945 Congress established “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” as the first week in October. But U.S. government efforts for disabled citizens appeared in law earlier, before 1920, with the establishment of laws and rehabilitation programs for physically disabled World War I veterans.


In 1935 the Social Security Act was created to provide benefits to unemployed and retired persons, but also assistance to the blind, elderly, and “crippled” youth. Later amendments expanded this to include more workers with disabilities and their dependents.


There have been numerous other U.S. federal acts gradually expanding benefits to larger sectors of the disabled population, as well as increasing their inclusion in the workforce and educational opportunities. Several dozen acts and expansions occurred between the 1990s through today. The most notable is perhaps the Americans with Disabilities Act (see below).


In 2006, previous U.S. laws were expanded to require all federal agencies to purchase supplies and use services of those with disabilities. This was then renamed AbilityOne, which now employs tens of thousands of blind or other disabled persons, including veterans in more than 1,000 locations of 40 government agencies.[2]


For more information on history, go to[3]

The Americans with Disabilities Act


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law established in 1990, to ensure that people with disabilities have equal rights and opportunities. It bans discrimination against disabled persons in all public places and private establishments that are open to the general public. It includes access to public accommodations, employment opportunities, transportation, government services, and telecommunications. The ADA definition of disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities.” This is a legal as opposed to medical definition. The ADA also protects people who do not have a disability, but are perceived to have one, and persons associated with someone with a disability. More about what is meant by the term “disability” is below.


For more information about the ADA, visit





What Is a Disability?


The U.S. federal government has multiple definitions for “disability,” depending on the context. For example, the ADA definition of “disability” is different from that used for determination of Social Security disability benefits. The ADA definition of disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities.”


What are major life activities? Examples of this are caring for oneself, walking, sleeping, hearing, standing, lifting, eating, seeing, bending, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, working and communicating.[4] In addition, this includes cell growth and the operations of body systems (e.g., immune, digestive, urinary, endocrine, neurological, respiratory and reproductive).4


What does it mean for a function or activity to be “substantially limited”? This is elaborated in amendments to the ADA adopted in 2008. The extent of limitation is determined without considering assistive devices/technology, such as medications, supplies, devices (excluding eyeglasses or contact lenses), prostheses, hearing aids and implantable hearing devices, and so on.4 In addition, reasonable accommodations or services or learned behavioral or adaptive modifications are not considered.4 For example, a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, but may use sign language (a learned behavioral modification) or has a hearing device (assistive technology), does have a disability under the law.


Not all legally or medically defined disabilities are apparent.




The World Health Organization defines barriers for people with disability  These include physically inaccessible environments, lack of assistive devices, sufficient services or appropriate policies, negative attitudes toward people with disabilities, and communication, social, and transportation barriers.[5] Unfortunately, people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to receive sufficient medical care (see graph below).5


Factors Affecting the Health of People with and without Disabilities

Under-representation in STEM


People with disabilities are under-represented in STEM, as are certain racial/ethnic minorities, first-generation college students and other groups. Despite this, science has benefitted in countless ways from the contributions of people with disabilities – both apparent and non-apparent disabilities. We must continue to increase employment opportunities, access, and educational resources for people with disabilities.


Resources and More Information


Article: “Dr. Dennis Den Reflects: Working with a Disability in the field of Biomedical Research”


Article: “Dr. Henry Adler Reflects on the Importance of Networking, Community and Mentoring for the Professional Development of Deaf Researchers”


U.S. Department of Labor Disability Resources


Entry Point! AAAS Program for students with apparent and non-apparent disabilities


White House Blog: “Making a Difference for Students with Disabilities in STEM Education: Understanding Facilitators and Barriers to Success”


[1] Image source:



[3]Reference source for “History” section. Image source for “ADA 1990 – 2015” picture.




Source of graph