Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Navigate Up
Sign In

Understanding Disabilities


Disability is a normal part of the human experience. The World Health Organisation (WHO) World report on disability (2011) says that almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and those who survive to old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning.

Most extended families have a disabled member, and many non-disabled people take 498-170.jpgresponsibility for supporting and caring for their relatives and friends with disabilities’. In Australia, some form of disability affects about one in five people.

Our perceptions of people with disability are socially and culturally conditioned. Negative attitudes and assumptions, often based on misunderstanding or ignorance, can shape the way we behave towards them. People with disability are as diverse as those without - blind people are no more alike than brown-eyed people!!  They are parents, partners, employees, artists, sportspeople and community members.

The preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) states that disability arises from the interaction between the impairments a person may experience and barriers that ‘hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’ The impairments can include ‘long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments’ whilst the barriers can be attitudinal or environmental. ‘Defining disability as an interaction means that “dis-ability” is not an attribute of the person.’

What is the difference between impairment and disability?

Impairment refers to a loss or difference in how a body part works for example partial sight, blindness, paralysis of an arm or leg or hearing loss. Impairments result from injury, illness or genetic disorders.

While some understanding of this is helpful, our concern is not with the specifics of the impairment, but the implications it has for the support each person needs to be able to go about their daily life, doing the same things in life that we all do. Everyone is an individual and therefore the support each person requires will be different. Rather than make assumptions about the impact of a person's condition or their ability to participate in activities of daily living, ask them what assistance or accommodations they need.

Impairments are variously disabling depending on the extent to which society/the community and the environment makes provisions for their inclusion.

Disability refers to a condition of the body or mind that limits a person’s ability to perform activities at home or outside of the home because the person has one or more impairments. Having a disability means that a person has an impairment that causes difficulty in doing many of the things we often take for granted, such as walking, eating, washing, dressing, reading, writing or speaking. A disability may be the result of an accident, a disease or condition, a birth defect or simply getting older. The disability may have been present since birth (known as congenital) or acquired later in life (e.g. an acquired brain injury).

Disability is not an attribute of the person, but the social and physical environment in which the person lives. It is the environment and society/the community (attitudes, stereotypes, barriers) that disables people. The nature of the disability can be greatly reduced when environments and practices are designed to be inclusive. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair will have no difficulties negotiating a well-designed, accessible building, but is completely disabled in a poorly designed one.

Disabilities take a variety of forms and may not be readily apparent. Wheelchairs and guide dogs are obvious indicators of a disability, but in many cases a disability may be ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ (e.g. an Intellectual disability, or Mental Health disability).

Disability has long been regarded as a human rights issue, a social issue, requiring social responses. People with a disability want the same things in life that we all do. To be treated with dignity, respect, acceptance, a sense of belonging, an education and opportunity to work and contribute, an opportunity to be involved in their community and society,  to participate in the activities available to everyone, to live in the community with choices equal to others. A person with disability may need assistance, formal and/or informal to live a full life and participate in all that society has to offer. That assistance can be provided by families, unpaid carers, and/or formal services. Services for people with a disability may address needs corresponding to impairments (e.g. Vision Australia for a person who is blind) or seek to improve aspects of the physical or social environment in order to remove barriers and increase participation.

DSA provides different services to enhance the lives of people with a disability. More information can be found on the  Your Service Choices section.

Remember, it is the implications of impairment and the social context of the disability that are important here, not the ‘diagnosis’. People with a disability are just people who require some additional assistance/ support or equipment/resources to be able to live a full life. 

Whether you know someone with a specific disability or are simply interested in learning more, the information on the following pages can break down barriers caused by misinformation and misconceptions.

Sources (2012)

WHO – World report on Disability (2011)

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)

Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) Understanding Disability

Wolfensberger et al (1996)

Last Modified: 18/10/2017 4:28 PM