What is disability?

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) defines disability as:

  • total or partial loss of the person’s bodily or mental functions
  • total or partial loss of a part of the body
  • the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness
  • the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of the person’s body
  • a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction
  • a disorder, illness or disease that affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment, or that results in disturbed behaviour;

and includes disability that:

  • presently exists
  • previously existed but no longer exists
  • may exist in the future
  • is imputed to a person (meaning it is thought or implied that the person has disability but does not).

There are many different kinds of disability and they can result from accidents, illness or genetic disorders. A disability may affect mobility, ability to learn things, or ability to communicate easily, and some people may have more than one. A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.

Although some people are born with disability, many people acquire disability. For example, a person may acquire a disability through a workplace incident or car accident, or may develop a disability as they age. There is a strong relationship between age and disability; as people grow older, there is a greater tendency to develop conditions which cause disability.

Who are people with disability?

Disability is part of human diversity. Over 4 million people, almost one in five people in Australia, have a disability and this proportion is increasing with an ageing population. People with disability purchase consumer goods, have jobs, go on holidays, access information and contribute to society in the same way that people without disability do. The only difference is that often people with disability come up against significant barriers while trying to do the things that many of us take for granted.

Types of disability

17.7% of the Australian population live with disability. Disability can be visible or non-visible, with a higher prevalence of non-visible disability in Australia. Disability can be inherited or acquired (due to illness or injury) and can be temporary or permanent.

The breadth of impairments and medical conditions covered by the DDA are set out below:

  • Physical - affects a person's mobility or dexterity
  • Intellectual - affects a person's abilities to learn
  • Mental Illness - affects a person's thinking processes
  • Sensory - affects a person's ability to hear or see
  • Neurological – affects the person’s brain and central nervous system,
  • Learning disability
  • Physical disfigurement or
  • Immunological - the presence of organisms causing disease in the body

To be deemed a disability, the impairment or condition must impact daily activities, communication and/or mobility, and has lasted or is likely to last 6 months or more.

People with disability are part of every section of our community: men, women and children; employers and employees; students and teachers; indigenous and non-indigenous; customers; and citizens. No two people with the same disability experience their disability in the same way.

The only thing that distinguishes a person with disability is they may require some form of adaptation/adjustment to enable them to do certain things in the same way as people without disability.

Employment and people with disability

According to the National Disability Strategy (2011):

Work is essential to an individual’s economic security and is important to achieving social inclusion. Employment contributes to physical and mental health, personal wellbeing and a sense of identity. Income from employment increases financial independence and raises living standards.

Unfortunately, a lot more people with disability are unemployed than those without a disability. However, of the people with disability who are employed, there is representation across many occupations. Professionals, managers and administrators are the largest occupational grouping and this represents 37% of people with disability in employment. Clerical sales and service workers are the second-largest grouping representing approximately 30%, and the remaining occupational categories include tradespersons, production, and transport workers as well as labourers and related workers representing approximately 33% of people with disability in employment.

Inclusive language

Language is an incredibly powerful tool and can be used to create a sense of empowerment, pride, identity and purpose. Contrary to the old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," improper use can have a devastating impact, even with the best intentions.

It can be difficult to keep up with what is the acceptable terminology in relation to disability, so we’ve compiled a brief refresher for you.

Focus on the person, not the impairment

In Australia, best-practice language is to use “person with disability” or “people with disability”.

Person-first language is the most widely accepted terminology in Australia. Examples of person-first language include: “person who is deaf”, or “people who have low vision”. Put the person first, and the impairment second (when it’s relevant). Other phrases that are growing in popularity and acceptance are: “person living with disability”, and “person with lived experience of disability”. These are inclusive of people who may have experienced disability in the past but don’t any longer, and also people who are carers.

We also prefer to say “person without disability”, and do not recommend the terms “non-disabled” or “able-bodied”.

People are not ‘bound’ by their wheelchairs

The term wheelchair-bound is one that is commonly used in mainstream media, and it is one that really irritates (and often offends) many people with disability and anyone with any knowledge of the Social Model of disability. A person who uses a wheelchair is not bound by the chair; they are enabled and liberated by it – it can become an extension of their body. “Confined to a wheelchair” is equally as negative. We say “wheelchair user” or “person who uses a wheelchair”, instead.

Avoid euphemisms and made-up words

“Differently abled”, “people of all abilities”, “disAbility”, “diffAbled”, “special needs” and the like, are all euphemistic and can be considered patronising. While the intention is usually good, these phrases tend to fall into the trap of making people with disability out to be special or inspirational, just for living with disability.

Change the focus from disability, to accessibility

In recent years, our members have increasingly referred to Accessibility Action Plans or Access and Inclusion Plans, rather than Disability Action Plans. This makes the focus much more inclusive and incorporates the requirements of a diverse range of people who may have access needs, including older people, parents and carers of young children, and travellers.

Similarly, car parks, lifts and bathrooms are now appropriately described as accessible, rather than disabled or handicapped.

Relax, and don’t get caught up in semantics

While the above information may seem daunting if it’s new to you, the most important thing to remember is to simply focus on the person, rather than the disability. Don’t be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t say anything at all. Relax, be willing to communicate, and listen.