A settlement last month between the Department of Justice and Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has sparked a discussion about what really constitutes a disability. The case involved students who complained that their school required them to purchase meal plans without making accommodations for their gluten-free dietary requirements. In the end, the DOJ determined that federal law required universities to make accommodations for students with special dietary requirements.
For purposes of Social Security disability benefits, there is a clear definition of disability. Under that definition, an applicant must have an impairment that, because of its severity, is expected to prevent them from working for at least one year or to result in death. This definition is unlikely to change anytime soon, for obvious reasons, but we are currently going through a shift in which disability could take on a broader meaning within society as a whole.
It has been pointed out that the DOJ ruling brings up a number of interesting questions related to disability. The ruling is reportedly the first of its kind to deal with food allergies, and it could be applied to other institutions or possibly restaurants.
The ruling moves in the direction of considering the environment, rather than bodies, as disabling. This way of looking at disability puts the pressure on society to accommodate those with special needs. There are, of course, those who aren't happy about this shift in the perception of disability, and it remains to be seen how it will all play out.
Source: Forbes, "What's A Disability? Some Push For The Lines To Be Redrawn," Alice G. Walton, January 25, 2013