The 3 Types of Disabilities and Their Characteristics

There are many types of disability. So many that sometimes it's very difficult to catalog them. Today, we'll present a division based on the international classification.
The 3 Types of Disabilities and Their Characteristics

Last update: 17 June, 2023

The different types of disabilities are determined based on the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (known as the ICF). It was approved on May 22, 2001, by the World Health Organization (WHO), and, although several modifications have been made, in general, the structure and division of disabilities are the same.

Contrary to popular belief, cataloging disabilities isn’t an easy mission to undertake. This manual serves as a guide for healthcare professionals to accurately determine the disabilities of their patients. In the following lines, we’ll summarize their contributions to present you the 3 types of disabilities.

Types of disability and their characteristics

First of all, you should know that the ICF manual doesn’t include all types of disabilities. It works as a framework or guide for the level of performance, skills, and limitations that a person may have through a number of components.

For even more information, we invite you to read it online. We’ll summarize the main points of interest in the following three categories:

1. Body functions

A nurse and an elderly woman looking at a book.
While many disabilities are congenital, others are acquired, especially as age advances. Those with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s are often included in this group.

In this category are grouped all the physiological limitations people may have, both physical and mental. The types of disabilities included in this section revolve around the following functions:

  • Mental
  • Sensory and pain
  • Voice and speech
  • Relating to the cardiovascular, hematological, immune, respiratory, metabolic, endocrine, digestive, genitourinary, reproductive, neuromusculoskeletal, and movement-related systems
  • Related to the skin and similar structures


These disabilities are classified on a scale from 0 to 9. We highlight the following divisions:

  • 1 (mild disability): Its presence is equal to or less than 25% of the time. Its intensity is tolerable and incidents are rarely reported in the last 30 days.
  • 2 (moderate disability): Is present equal to or less than 50% of the time (it doesn’t overlap with the previous range). Its intensity limits some daily functions with an occasional presence in the last 30 days.
  • 3 (severe disability): Develops more than 50% of the time. It completely interrupts the patient’s daily tasks, something that happens quite frequently in the last 30 days.
  • 4 (complete disability): Affects 95% of the person’s life span. Limitations happen every day.

The previous level determines the impact generated by the types of disabilities in terms of bodily functions in patients. An example of some conditions that are included in this group are functions of temperament and personality (such as bipolar disorder), functions of the vestibular system (balance), and limitations in the fluency or rhythm of speech.

2. Body structures

In this category are grouped all the limitations that are related to the anatomical parts of the body. For example, the organs, the limbs, and their components. According to the ICF, patients with disabilities are included in this group according to the following structures:

  • Eye, ear, and related structures
  • Those related to voice and speech
  • Related to the nervous, cardiovascular, hematological, immune, respiratory, metabolic, endocrine, digestive, genitourinary, reproductive, neuromusculoskeletal, and movement-related systems, such as Parkinson’s.
  • Related to the skin and similar structures.

For these cases, the scale of the types of disabilities by bodily functions is used to determine the level of severity. All of the above structural limitations that can be grouped into these scales are considered a disability.

A disability is any condition of the mind or body that prevents people from interacting with the world around them or doing certain activities.

That is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), participation restrictions and activity limitations, respectively. Keep this in mind in the next section.

3. Activities and participation

Types of disability include physical and mental problems
Helping people with disabilities to achieve better social or family insertion is very important to ensure adequate mental health.

Sometimes the types of disability are classified according to the restrictions on the execution of individual actions. At the same time, because of the way in which these restrictions limit participation in labor, social and other contexts. The manual includes the following in this category:

  • Difficulties in learning or applying knowledge: Due to limitations in seeing, hearing, writing, speaking, paying attention, solving problems, and so on.
  • Difficulty doing tasks or demands: These may be specific or general. At home, work, or away from home.
  • Communication disabilities: Receiving, decoding, or sending the message. Also reading, writing, or interpreting non-verbal signals (gestures), among other things.
  • Limitations in mobility: These restrict walking, maintaining or changing position, reaching for objects, driving, using means of transportation, and so on.
  • Self-care limitations: Prevent eating, bathing, dressing, drinking, and other self-care actions.
  • Specific difficulties of domestic life: These limit the maintenance or acquisition of a home, basic food products, and other goods and services, doing household chores, and other similar aspects.
  • Restrictions in interpersonal relationships: These prevent establishing friendships, affinity, or formal relationships with strangers and even with close people.
  • Restrictions in community life: They hinder people’s community life, be it at a communicative or recreational level.
  • Limitations in the main areas of life: Such as getting or keeping a job, getting an education, or controlling aspects of economic life.

Disability and discrimination

The types of disabilities are often divided into visual, intellectual, movement, and other categories. Although these groups may be useful in some contexts, they’re inaccurate in others. For example, those who have been diagnosed with HIV can’t be inserted into the classic categories, but they’re still considered among the disabled groups.

In fact, many countries include them in the laws for disabled people. Even when the stigma towards them has decreased due to awareness campaigns, many prejudices persist that prevent them from finding work, accessing some services, relating in certain contexts, or enjoying certain rights (which allows them to be grouped in the previous sections).

In short, the ICF is a very useful guide for identifying the exact disability of people. It’s very important that those who suffer from one know their rights as citizens of their country. Finding out about laws that protect them is of great importance to avoid discrimination or facilitate access to some goods and services.

  • International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. World Health Organization. 2001.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.