2.1 What is disability?

What comes into your mind when you think of the word ‘disability’? Many people associate the concept with restriction and limited potential. They often do not recognise that the restrictions and limitations are frequently caused by the physical environment in which we live and the attitudes and behaviours of other people. The definition of disability therefore has two components. Disability refers to a functional limitation as a result of partial or complete loss of the function of a body part, and the resulting restriction an individual has in society due to the nature of the environment in which they live. In simpler words, if you have a disability it means you are unable to do some things because the place where you live has not been designed for someone like you. (Remember the module title of Count me in.)

The formal definition of persons with disabilities from the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was introduced in Study Session 1. It stated that persons with disabilities have ‘long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’ (United Nations, 2006).

This definition uses two important terms: impairments and barriers. Impairment is the loss of a function of the body, for example, when someone is unable to walk or cannot hear properly. Impairments are mostly irreversible and lifelong. Different types of impairment are described in Section 2.2.

A barrier to inclusion is anything that prevents or hinders accessibility or the full participation of persons with disabilities. Different types of barrier are described in Section 2.3.

The UN definition makes clear that disability is not only about the impairment of an individual person but also about how they interact with the world around them and the barriers that they have to deal with. Figure 2.1 illustrates this important relationship.

Figure 2.1 Disability results from impairment in a part of someone’s body combined with the barriers created by the environment in which they live.

It is this interaction between different types of impairment and the various barriers that cause a person to be disabled in society. This means that persons with disabilities are not all the same and one person with a disability can have a completely different experience from another. Further variation arises from the use of assistive devices and other aids, if they are available. An assistive device is any device that helps someone to do something that they might not otherwise be able to do. Generally, the term is used for devices that help people overcome impairment. For example, wheelchairs and crutches can improve mobility for some people with physical impairments and hearing aids can help some people with a hearing impairment.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 2

2.2 Types of impairment