Skip to main content
- Smaller Text | + Larger Text

Definitions of Disability

  • Synopsis: Published: 2009-12-23 (Rev. 2012-06-28) - Definitions of Disability a word used in daily conversations that holds different meanings for different people. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Disabled World.

Main Document

"Disability" is a word often used in daily conversations and holds different meanings for different people. Do these different meanings matter? What is there to be gained by trying to define disability more precisely and to attempt to use the word in consistent ways

Disability groups and other organizations may have their own definitions of disability. The concept of disability is complex, and there are historical, social, legal and philosophical influences on its interpretation. The experience of disability is unique to each person but there are common impacting factors. There are common aspects also in the rights of people to access specific disability services provided directly or indirectly by governments. The need for some agreed definitions, largely to ensure that disability support programs are fair about who is to receive benefits and why, has prompted much discussion and debate.

The use of common terms and definitions provides individuals with a basis for a common understanding. In this way, communication is assisted, transparency in social programs is improved, and needs are better met through accurate identification and understanding of what people require.

Lets take a look at some definitions of the word "Disability" as defined by various organizations around the world.

Definition of "disability" under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The DDA sets out the circumstances under which a person is 'disabled'. A person is considered to be disabled if:

  • They have a mental or physical impairment
  • The impairment has an adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities
  • The adverse effect is substantial and long-term (meaning it has lasted for 12 months, or is likely to last for more than 12 months or for the rest of the person's life).

In addition there are also some special provisions under the Act that cover, for example, progressive conditions and past disabilities. In defining 'normal day-to-day activities' the DDA states that at least one of the following areas must be badly affected:

  • Mobility
  • Manual dexterity
  • Physical coordination
  • Continence
  • Ability to lift, carry or move everyday objects
  • Speech, hearing or eyesight
  • Memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand
  • Understanding of the risk of physical danger.

ADA Definition of "disability"

The ADA has a three-part definition of "disability." This definition, based on the definition under the Rehabilitation Act, reflects the specific types of discrimination experienced by people with disabilities. Accordingly, it is not the same as the definition of disability in other laws, such as state workers' compensation laws or other federal or state laws that provide benefits for people with disabilities and disabled veterans.

Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who:

1. Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

2. Has a record of such an impairment

3. Is regarded as having such an impairment.

The World Health Organization defines Disability as follows:

"Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person's body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

Three dimensions of disability are recognized in the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH)

A new version of the ICIDH is now being drafted, to embrace developments in the field since 1980, and criticism of the first ICIDH. A range of countries, including Australia, is involved in the work with the World Health Organization, as well as organizations representing people with a disability. One of the major developments is the more specific recognition of the social construction of the third dimension of disability. It is being proposed that this third dimension be renamed 'participation', and that its definition recognize the critical role played by environmental or contextual factors in restricting full participation.

Definitions of the ICIDH 1980

The International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH), provides a conceptual framework for disability which is described in three dimensions-impairment, disability and handicap:

  • Impairment: In the context of health experience an impairment is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. Impairment is considered to occur at the level of organ or system function. Disability is concerned with functional performance or activity, affecting the whole person.
  • Disability: In the context of health experience a disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
  • Handicap: In the context of health experience a handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex, and social and cultural factors) for that individual.
  • The third dimension: 'handicap'-focuses on the person as a social being and reflects the interaction with and adaptation to the person's surroundings. The classification system for handicap is not hierarchical, but is constructed of a group of dimensions, with each dimension having an associated scaling factor to indicate impact on the individual's life.

Definitions of the new draft ICIDH

In the context of health condition:

  • Impairment: is a loss or abnormality in body structure or of a physiological or psychological function.
  • Activity: is the nature and extent of functioning at the level of the person. Activities may be limited in nature, duration and quality.
  • Participation: is the nature and extent of a person's involvement in life situations in relationship to impairments, activities, health conditions and contextual factors. Participation may be restricted in nature, duration and quality. Participation is considered within seven broad domains: personal maintenance; mobility; exchange of information; social relationships; education, work, leisure and spirituality; economic life; and civic and community life.
  • Context: includes the features, aspects, attributes of, or objects, structures, human-made organizations, service provision, and agencies in, the physical, social and attitudinal environment in which people live and conduct their lives.

Definition of disability discrimination

Disability discrimination is the act of treating someone with a disability less favorably than someone without a disability.



Related Information:

  1. Defining Disability Today - Two models used for deriving the definition of disability are known as the medical model and the social model.
  2. Definitions of The Models of Disability - Glossary list of definitions and explanations of the Models of Disability in society today.
  3. Disability or Disabled - Which Term is Right - Differences and similarities in disability and disabled terminology including the right term to use.

Information from our Glossary: Definitions of Disability, Health and Medical Terms section - (Full List).


     What will I receive?

Loan Information for low income singles, families, seniors and disabled. Includes home, vehicle and personal loans.


Famous People with Disabilities - Well known people with disabilities and conditions who contributed to society.


List of awareness ribbon colors and their meaning. Also see our calendar of awareness dates.


Blood Pressure Chart - What should your blood pressure be. Also see information on blood group types and compatibility.


  1. Comparison of Drug Cost Variation Between Drug Plans
  2. CP Awareness: World Cerebral Palsy Day Friday 6th October 2017
  3. Google Glass Holli App Assists Social Interactions for Children with ASD
  4. Sports Telemedicine Save Families Time and Money




Citation