Mobility is the ability to move. A disability is the result of an impairment that affects a person’s ability to carry out tasks. For example, a person may find it difficult to walk very far due to joint pain.

Not all disabilities affect mobility. Disability can affect people in a wide range of ways, and many disabilities are not apparent to others. Therefore, mobility and disability are not opposites. A person with full mobility can still have a disability.

Moreover, different people and institutions have different definitions of disability, so there is no single way of determining who has a disability and who does not.

Read on to learn more about mobility, disability, and the different definitions of these terms.

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Mobility is the ability to move. This includes many facets, such as:

  • stamina
  • strength
  • balance
  • coordination
  • range of motion of the joints

A disability is an impairment that affects a person’s ability to function in a typical way within their culture. This could be in terms of movement or another type of function, such as the ability to think, see, hear, communicate, or form relationships.

The term “mobility disability” specifically refers to disabilities that affect movement. But having a mobility disability does not necessarily mean that a person cannot move at all. Some people may be able to move, but not for very long. Others may have periods when they can move and periods when symptoms prevent them from doing so.

Most definitions of disability require that it affect one or more activities of daily living, such as movement, self-care, or working for pay.

There is no one way to define disability, but there are several models that people draw upon in different situations.

Legal model of disability

In the legal model of disability, a person must meet certain legal criteria for a government or other authority to consider them disabled. These criteria usually exist to regulate disability rights, accommodations, or government support.

For example, in the United States, the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines disability as a condition that limits a person’s ability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity,” such as employment. The condition must be expected to last 12 months or longer.

Legal definitions of disability can vary widely depending on location.

Medical model of disability

In the medical model of disability, the definition depends on a person’s medical diagnosis, the severity of their symptoms, and how those symptoms affect their life.

Doctors may consider a person to have a disability if they have a long-term condition that affects their ability to do things that most people can do, such as walk without assistance.

Some disability rights activists have criticized this model of disability because it can frame the difficulties people with disabilities encounter as individual medical problems rather than results of the way society operates. In response, activists developed the social model of disability.

Social model of disability

In the social model of disability, “impairments” and “disabilities” are distinct.

An impairment is a difference in a physical ability or skill, while disabilities are the difficulties a person faces due to the context that surrounds them. This could include the design of public spaces, the demands of economic or political systems, or social expectations.

For example, an autistic person may have sensory sensitivities that influence the types of environment or activity they enjoy. In a society that is considerate of sensory sensitivities, that person may not have problems going out or participating in activities.

But in a society that does not consider accessibility, a person with these sensitivities may experience distress or social stigma, which may prevent them from doing the things they want to do.

Similarly, a person who uses a wheelchair may get around easily when they have access to spaces with specialized toilets, ramps for getting up and down slopes, and wide-enough doorways. But a person who does not live in such an environment may have significant difficulty getting around.

Examples of mobility impairments include:

  • paralysis of specific joints or limbs
  • difficulty coordinating or controlling movements
  • structural changes that affect movement, such as limb differences
  • weakened muscles
  • reduced stamina
  • reduced range of motion in joints
  • difficulties with balance
  • difficulty moving due to symptoms such as pain and dizziness

Many conditions could result in these impairments, including:

“Limited mobility” means that a person has a limited ability to move but can do so under certain circumstances. For example, they may have limits to their strength, their stamina, or the types of movements they can do.

This term encompasses many of the same things as mobility impairment. Some people use the two terms interchangeably.

Disability accommodations are changes that help people with disabilities perform tasks and participate in activities more easily.

In the United States, various laws require workplaces and schools to make disability accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one such law.

Examples of accommodations include:

  • installing ramps for wheelchairs
  • adding grab bars to bathrooms
  • ensuring that walkways are wide enough for people who use mobility equipment
  • providing chairs, desks, or other equipment that people can adjust to their needs
  • allowing a person to work from home

In addition to accommodations, people in the United States who have mobility disabilities can get other forms of support, such as:

  • financial support from the SSA
  • protection from discrimination under the ADA
  • job training and employment programs

People can find out more at Other resources people may find useful include:

  • independent living centers, which provide information and support for housing, transport, and support groups
  • the ADA National Network, which helps people understand the law and how to benefit from it
  • educational disability offices, which may be present in colleges or schools
  • disability-specific organizations that provide help for people with specific conditions

Mobility and disability are related but distinct concepts. Mobility is the ability to move. Disability is the result of an impairment — either a mobility impairment or another type.

Not everyone with a disability has difficulties with mobility, and not everyone with mobility difficulties considers themselves disabled. There are also different definitions of disability in legal, medical, and social contexts.

Regardless of a person’s situation or views, support and acceptance can help people stay mobile. This may involve workplace or school accommodations, mobility equipment, or other types of support.