Types of Disabilities

Defining a Disability

Federal law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of that individual. If a condition substantially limits a student's learning or limits a student's access to educational opportunity, that condition is considered a disability.

Laws regarding disabilities, and our understanding of disabilities, in general, are ever changing. From time to time, the laws and our policies change.


Typical symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity (AD/HD) in a college environment are difficulty with managing multiple and competing deadlines for long-term projects, following through on goals and intentions, and making good judgments about how to spend one's time. Frustration with achieving one's own expectations (or those of others) can engender feelings of depression or anxiety.

Use of alcohol, medications, and/or illegal substances can be problematic for a student who already has trouble with impulse control or mood management.   

Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities (LD) refer to profiles of a significant difficulty in a specific area of learning, despite demonstrated strengths in other areas. 

Learning Disabilities are persistent throughout life, but may manifest differently depending on the learning demands, academic setting, or the use of compensatory strategies. For this reason, a student's experience in high school may not be replicated in the university setting.   

Some individuals achieve well in secondary school, without confronting significant obstacles or being identified as having a specific learning disability. Others may find that they come into their own in the college setting.

Getting a clear picture of one's learning disability contributes to improving strategies for meeting one's goals, creating achievable plans, and reducing frustration from unexplained difficulties that persist even when a student is giving his or her best effort.  

Physical Disabilities

Physical disorders are typically grouped into general categories: neurological, musculoskeletal, visual, auditory, and severe, chronic medical conditions.

Psychological Disabilities

College-age students quite commonly experience psychological distress at some point in their experience, and often seek help to learn new coping strategies to deal with their distress. 

Psychiatric disorders represent severe mental and emotional distress that significantly hinder a student's ability to cope with the stresses of daily living and academic courses. Many psychiatric disorders involve both biological and psychological components. Psychiatric disorders may impair concentration, energy, memory, and the ability to process information, and schoolwork and social relationships may be compromised.