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Section 4: Defining Disability

In order for an individual to be eligible to receive a reasonable accommodation or modification, the individual must be a person with a disability. While disability may be defined differently by federal, state, or local fair housing law, in most cases, if a condition constitutes a disability under one fair housing law, it likely constitutes a disability under other fair housing laws.


For purposes of this Guidebook, this section will focus on the federal definition of disability. However, since housing providers are subject to federal, state, and local fair housing laws and those definitions of disability may vary, housing providers should examine and be familiar with any differences between the definition of disability in those laws.

4A: Disability as Defined Under Fair Housing Laws

A disability can be physical or mental. A person has a disability if the condition substantially limits at least one major life activity, such as walking, hearing, seeing, working, or learning. A person can also be considered disabled under civil rights laws if regarded as having disability, even if the actual condition does not qualify as a disability. In addition, a person is considered disabled under civil rights laws if there is a record of having a disability.

Examples of Disability:

  • A person who has visible scarring may be considered disabled if treated differently because of that trait.
  • Someone with a hearing aid or someone who uses a wheelchair has an apparent disability.
  • People with intellectual disabilities, chronic pain or fatigue, mental health disabilities, and learning disabilities have non-apparent disabilities.

4B: Apparent Disabilities

Apparent disabilities are ones that can be easily seen or detected by others.

4C: Non-apparent Disabilities

Non-apparent disabilities are ones that cannot be easily seen or detected by others. They are also referred to as invisible disabilities. Housing providers must treat non-apparent disabilities in the same manner as apparent disabilities.


Controlled Substances or Alcohol

Individuals currently abusing a controlled substance or alcohol are not covered by fair housing laws. However, people recovering from substance or alcohol abuse are considered people with disabilities and are entitled to reasonable accommodations and modifications.