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What is Disability?

Legislative definition

The definition of ‘Disability’ under the Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) is very broad to encompass physical, sensory, mental and intellectual disability.

'Disability', in relation to a person, means:

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

and includes a disability that:

  • presently exists;
  • or previously existed but no longer exists;
  • or may exist in the future;
  • or is imputed to a person1

Many students may not realise that their condition, illness or injury may be considered a disability under anti-discrimination legislation.

Students with a disability within this definition may be eligible to specialist support and provisions from their further education or training provider.  

Contemporary models of disability

The Australian legislation presents a medicalised model of disability where the emphasis is on a the impairments or differences of the individual and looks at what is 'wrong' with the person rather than what is needed to accommodate difference. This approach creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their lives.

A more contemporary approach to disability is recognising that it is learning, physical and digital environments which create barriers for participation across all domains of life.

The World Health Organisation2 describes it as:

Disability results from the interaction between individuals with a health condition with personal and environmental factors including negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social support.

A person’s environment has a huge effect on the experience and extent of disability. Inaccessible environments create barriers that often hinder the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society on an equal basis with others. Progress on improving social participation can be made by addressing these barriers and facilitating persons with disabilities in their day to day lives.

The social model of disability says that people are disabled by barriers in society, such as buildings not having a ramp or accessible toilets; not providing digital information in accessible or multiple formats so everyone can access it; or people’s attitudes to employing a person with disability because of an assumption that people with disability can’t do certain things.

The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for people with disability. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers people with disability more independence, choice and control.


    1 Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (Aust.).

    2 World Health Organisation. Disability.