When does a chronic illness become a disability?

A chronic illness is an illness that lasts for more than a year, requires medical attention, or limits your daily life – and it’s more common than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 out of 10 adults in the United States live with a chronic disease, and 4 out of 6 adults have two or more chronic conditions. This can include anything from cancer, heart disease, Diabetes Where Alzheimer’s disease

Living with a chronic illness is different for everyone, and not everyone with a chronic illness is disabled. But if your chronic illness changes the way you live your life to a debilitating degree, when does it become a disability? And how can you get help at work, school or in other areas of your life if you need it?

Let’s first look at the differences between a disability and a chronic illness.

What is a disability?

A disability involves any physical or mental condition that limits a person’s interactions with the world and may include impairment of any or all of the following functions:

  • Mental
  • Physical
  • Learning
  • Intellectual
  • Vision
  • Communication
  • Hearing

The World Health Organization defines disability according to three dimensions: impairment, activity limitation and participation restriction.


In the context of a disability, an impairment is a significant difference in a person’s bodily structure or mental functioning that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Impairments can include a missing or underdeveloped limb, hearing loss, or a mental health issue that makes it difficult to take care of basic needs on your own.

Activity limitation

According to the WHO, another component of a disability is that it can affect your ability to perform common activities, such as walking, talking or mentally processing information.

Participation Restriction

Finally, disabilities can affect your ability to participate in everyday situations, such as working, spending time with friends, attending events, and getting health care.

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Chronic illness and disability

What is the link between chronic illness and disability? Legally defined, many chronic conditions can lead to disability, both temporary and permanent. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act establishes the federal framework by which disabilities are classified and addressed in public life.

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines a chronic disease as a condition that:

  • Lasts a year or more
  • Requires ongoing medical attention, limits activities of daily living, or both

Each country approaches chronic disease and disability a little differently. For example, the UK refers to disability because of its “‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to carry out normal daily activities”, while Australia refers to people with disabilities as having at least less a daily activity restriction.

Although chronic illnesses and disabilities can have a similar effect on your body, your relationships, and your daily interactions, not everyone with a chronic illness is disabled.

Can my chronic illness be considered a disability?

After looking at the definition of a chronic disease, this question may seem simple, but the answer is different for everyone. Not all chronic conditions are disabilities, and not all disabilities result from a chronic disease. diseases.

Ask yourself

  • Does this condition impair my daily life?
  • In the past 90 days, have I had difficulty eating, going to the bathroom, walking or bathing?
  • Has my condition significantly limited my activity and participation in life?
  • Is one or more symptoms causing significant impairment to my mind, senses, or body?
  • Do I need more supervision to carry out my daily routines?

If you answered “yes” to one or more questions, your chronic condition may be considered a disability. This is important to know when applying for insurance, disability accommodation, or professional care. But what does this mean for the workplace?

Woman working on laptop and doing daily exercises to help her arthritis

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Accommodations in the workplace

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission highlights three areas of reasonable accommodation based on the ADA:

  • Provide an accessible job application for a person with a disability
  • Adjustments to physical work so that the work can reasonably be done by a person with a disability
  • Benefits and privileges accessible online with other employees, such as break rooms, conferences and transportation

The ADA also lists other workplace accommodations that are generally considered:

  • Modified Job Duties
  • Flexible work schedule
  • Reserved car park
  • Access to service animals
  • Hardware or software changes

In order to begin the accommodation process, you must first disclose your disability to your employer or human resources representative. It is important to note that this is an entirely voluntary process that you can start at almost any time. You can do this during the application process (many applications include space for voluntary self-disclosure) or when you are actively working.

And if you don’t need or want housing, you don’t have to disclose it at all.

Either way, employers are very limited in what they can ask about your condition, whether you’re applying for a job or actively working. According to the EEOC, “An employer may ask you whether you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer may also ask you to describe or demonstrate how, with or without reasonable accommodation, you will perform the duties of the job. of work.”

Depending on the type of work involved, you may need to undergo an examination or provide documentation of your condition. From there, you and your employer should determine and document appropriate workplace accommodations, if needed.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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