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A sensory disability refers to a disability of the senses (e.g. sight, hearing).


Vision impairment

Vision impairment (also referred to as visual impairment) is any diagnosed condition of the eye or visual system that cannot be corrected to within normal limits. It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 people who are blind or vision impaired in Australia. Vision impairment may result from disease, damage or injury to any part of the visual system (the eye, the visual pathways to the brain or the visual centre of the brain). The most common causes are neurological vision impairment due to a stroke, tumour or brain injury, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa.

The World Health Organisation. (2010) identifies 3 categories of vision impairment (mild, moderate and severe impairment) and 3 categories of blindness based on visual acuity tests. Most people who are legally blind have some vision, may be light-sensitive, have low or limited vision, or have limited peripheral vision. Some may have no vision at all (no light perception). The impact of a vision impairment depends on the type, extent and timing of vision loss. A person may have gradually lost vision over a number of years; others may have been blind since birth. With some vision impairments, sight fluctuates and vision or light tolerance can vary.

A person with a vision impairment may use a guide/assistance dog or white cane to assist them in mobility. They may also use a range of assistive or adaptive technology which includes devices, tools, hardware or software. For example screen magnification software, closed-circuit TV, or screen-reading software.

Definition and information sourced from:

  1. The World Health Organisation. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10) Version 2010  .
  2. Vision Australia – 2012
  3. Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) 2012


Hearing loss

One in six people in Australia has a hearing loss. Hearing loss may range from mild impairment to profound (deaf). Between nine and 12 children per 10,000 births are born with a moderate or greater hearing loss in both ears.  Hearing loss can result from a problem at any point in the hearing pathway (the outer, middle or inner ears) or the complex auditory nerve pathway to the brain. The hearing loss can be present at or soon after birth (known as congenital hearing loss) or develop later (acquired hearing loss). The loss may occur before or after speech has developed (pre-lingual and post-lingual). The hearing loss can be conductive (damage to/ impairment to the outer or middle ear), sensorineural (damage to/ impairment to the inner ear) or a combination of both.

Deaf Australia says people with profound hearing loss prefer to be referred to as Deaf rather than hearing impaired. They see this as a positive identity. Deaf people identify with the Deaf community and its unique language (Auslan) and culture. Understanding the differences between Deaf people who use Auslan and hearing impaired people who do not use Auslan is important, as the groups are quite different in their attitudes and approach to deafness and their interests and needs.

The life experience of a person who has been deaf since birth or early childhood is very different to a person who is hearing impaired. For ‘deaf people, to be deaf is a normal part of the human condition, not something to be sad about’. The difficulties that deaf people experience do not happen because they are deaf per se, but because of the way society treats them. Although many deaf people use hearing aids, a significant number are not interested in medical and technological ‘solutions’ to their deafness. They seek ways to live comfortably, to be involved in and make a contribution to the community and achieve their potential as Deaf people.

A person with an acquired hearing loss/ impairment (i.e. after they have acquired spoken language) does not usually use Auslan and does not identify with the Deaf community and its culture. For these people deafness is experienced as a loss. Medical and technological solutions are important as they can restore hearing where possible and use their residual hearing as much as possible. They see themselves as hearing people who now have problems hearing.

The most significant single cause of hearing loss in Australia is exposure to loud noise. 37% of hearing loss is due to excessive noise exposure. Hearing  loss can also be acquired through illness, accident, exposure to certain drugs and chemicals, or as part  of the normal ageing process.

A person with hearing loss may use a variety of assistive or adaptive technology (i.e. devices, tools, hardware or software). For example amplification devices such as hearing aids, cochlear implant or an FM system (reduces background noise ), hearing loop amplifies sound/reduces background noise captioning is the dialogue transcription  at the bottom of a television screen. Text Telephones (TTYs), Visual alert signallers Reading & Writing software 



Deafblindness is a combination of vision and hearing loss.  Individuals who have a combined vision and hearing loss have specific communication, learning, and mobility challenges due to their dual sensory loss.  Deafblindness is a unique and diverse condition due to the wide range of sensory capabilities, possible presence of additional disabilities and the age of onset for the vision and hearing loss.


The World Health Organisation. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10) Version 2010 

Australian Hearing– 2012

Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) 2012


Sensory Disability

Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) (also called sensory processing disorder) is a neurological disorder that causes difficulties with processing information from the five senses (vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste), the sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or sense of position (proprioception). Unlike blindness or deafness, sensory information is sensed normally by a person with Sensory Integration Dysfunction, but the brain perceives and analyses the information in an unusual way that may cause distress or confusion. There is no known cure; however, there are many treatments available.

Sensory Modulation/ sensory registration problems are characterized by failure to notice stimuli that ordinarily are registered by most people. Sensory integration disorders vary in their characteristics and intensity for each person. It ranges from those mild to others are so impaired they have trouble with daily functioning.

The person may be born with heightened hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g. feeling pain from clothing rubbing against skin, inability to tolerate normal lighting, dislike of being touched, discomfort with direct eye contact)  or lower sensitivity and higher tolerance for sensory stimuli hyposensitive (e.g. Insensitivity to pain, may giggle when given an injection, not register they have touched something very hot, might appear restless and seek sensory stimulation to varying degrees). A person may have trouble in one sensory modality, a few, or all of them.

Sensory Integration Dysfunction is a disorder on its own, but can also be a characteristic of other neurological conditions; including Autism Spectrum Disorders, dyslexia, developmental dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and speech delays, among others. Sensory integration dysfunction is not considered to be on the autism spectrum.

Information sourced from

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are ‘life-long neurodevelopmental disabilities that involve an abnormality of brain development and function’ (1).  The word ‘spectrum’ is used because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder experience can vary widely. The word ‘autism’ is sometimes used to refer to all Autism Spectrum Disorders. Research shows that about 1 in 110 children have an ASD and it is more common in males than females (3:1) (2). There is no single cause, however genetic factors and associated medical condition (eg tuberous sclerosis) have been identified. ASD is not caused by a person’s upbringing or social circumstances. 

The three Autism Spectrum Disorders are:

  1. Autistic Disorder (also known as classic autism). Usually detected before 3 years of age.
  2. Asperger’s Disorder (also known as Asperger’s syndrome). Often detected later than autistic disorder as speech usually develops at the expected age and there is no significant delay in cognitive abilities or self help skills.  
  3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) (also known as atypical autism). Where the full criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger’s disorder are not met.

Regardless of the disorder type, a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder will experience difficulties in social situations. Autism spectrum disorders are characterised by significant difficulties in 3 areas:

  1. Impairment in reciprocal social interaction
  2. Impairment in verbal and non-verbal communication skills and play
  3. Stereotyped behaviour, interests and activities (restricted and repetitive interests).

Individuals with an ASD may also have learning difficulties or an Intellectual impairment (occurs in 70% of people with autistic disorder (2); unusual sensory interests (e.g. sniffing objects, fascination with spinning objects or lights); unusual sensory response or sensitivities that may involve avoiding particular sounds/ textures (e.g. hair dryer, vacuum cleaner, sand) and intolerance to certain foods.

Emotional and Behavioural problems (eg aggression, obsessions, self-injurious behaviour, fussy eating, sleep problems) are common.  The nature of communication impairments eg repetitive speech, socially inappropriate behaviour may result in social isolation, teasing and bullying. Mental health issues such as depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and psychosis may emerge during adolescence and continue into adulthood, requiring medication and psychological treatment. Epilepsy is common and can develop at any age. 

Although usually diagnosed in early childhood, ASD can be diagnosed at any age by a developmental paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist experienced with ASD. There is no cure. However, early diagnosis, the right interventions, specialised/planned educational programs, structured support and access to specialist and other support services can greatly minimise the effects of an ASD. 

Consistency in the strategies identified to support each person with ASD is essential for everyone involved in the persons life (e.g. family, friends, school, work, organisations involved with providing support).  Assessments include observing and meeting with the individual, their family and service providers and administering standardised tests or questionnaires.

  1. Definition and information sourced from The Centre for Developmental Disability Health - Vic (2010)
  2. Statistics sourced from The Centre for Developmental Disability Health - Vic (2010)

For further information see  Centre for Developmental Disability Health Victoria 


1. Impairment in social interaction

  • Seeking people’s company but lacking ability to engage in two-way social interactions.
  • Markedly impaired use of non-verbal communication eg gestures. facial expressions.
  • Difficulties forming and sustaining friendships.
  • Lack of spontaneously seeking to share enjoyment, interest and activities with others.
  • Awkward, avoidant or indifferent eye contact.
  • Inability to understand social rules e.g. make socially embarrassing comments unintentionally.
  • Impaired understanding of other people’s motivations, perspectives or feelings.

2. Impairment in communication and play

  • A delay in or lack of speech development without other communication eg gesture/ mime.
  • Significant difficulty in initiating and sustaining conversations (in those with speech).
  • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language such as repeating phrases from television.
  • Limited imaginative or make-believe play.
  • Lack of imitation of others.

3. Restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours

  • Interests are unusual, intense, or excessively narrow
  • Stereotyped and repetitive body movements e.g. hand flapping and spinning
  • Repetitive use of objects (e.g. repeatedly lining up toys)
  • Adherence to rigid routines (e.g. insisting on travelling home  the same way each day)
  • Intolerance of change.
  • Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.
Last Modified: 18/10/2017 4:57 PM