Discussing disability


Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.


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.


A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual.

If you are interested in political aspects of disability awareness, the DEMOS ‘Disability Awareness’ module is a good place to start. This topic also studied in two OU courses: K222 Care, Welfare and Community for Social Workers and D218 Social Policy: Welfare, Power and Diversity.

Defining disability

So, what do we mean by the term ‘disability’? The Open University doesn't define the term, but offers services to any person with ‘a disability, health problem, mental-health difficulty or specific learning difficulty (such as dyslexia) that affects their ability to study’ (Open to Your Needs booklet, pdf file, 2005).

In the UK the main legislation used to improve the treatment of disabled people and to manage resources is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

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 their life).

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 co-ordination

  • 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.

The Disability Rights Commission launched a consultation about the definition of disability, which can be found on the Disability Rights Commission website.

Disability-related terminology

You may already be aware that the influence of the social model of disability has resulted in a change in the terminology used in relation to disability. Some terms are discouraged because they reflect the medical model's view that the ‘problems’ associated with disability stem from functional limitations. This can lead to hesitation when discussing disability for fear of causing offence. The preferred terms reflect the view of the social model that it is society that disables people with impairments.

DEMOS usefully summarises the importance of the terminology and some of the difficulties associated with it.

The language we use to talk about disability plays an extremely important part in the way society views disabled people. This is often a confusing area since people who are not disabled themselves feel worried about offending one particular group of people by using the wrong term and the terminology adopted by disabled people often changes.

There is not universal agreement on how to describe disabled people since disabled people themselves often disagree on the ‘best’ term.

(DEMOS, ‘Disability awareness terminology’ (Accessed 17 August 2007))

A web search on ‘political correctness’ revealed many viewpoints on using acceptable terminology. The views expressed ranged from heated arguments across many forums to a short article at the UK Channel 4 Television website. They confirm the view in the DEMOS quote that disabled people disagree about how to describe disability in the same way as non-disabled people.

Different cultures may have different views on what is acceptable. Table 1 reflects the standards that we used as guidance when writing the accessibility activities.

Table 1 Discouraged and preferred disability-related terms

Discouraged term Rationale Preferred term
The disabled There is no such thing as the disabled; lumping everyone together in this way is felt by many to take away their individuality. Disabled people
The blind As above. Visually impaired people Blind people
People with disabilities Implies the disability ‘belongs’ to the disabled person. Disabled people
Handicapped Cripple Conjures images of disabled people begging or being ‘cap in hand’. Disabled person
Invalid Literally means not valid. Disabled person
Able bodied Suggests that all disabilities are physical and ignores unseen disabilities, and that disabled people are not able. Non-disabled
Afflicted with… Victim of… Crippled by … Conveys a tragic or negative view about disability. Has … [condition]
Suffering from Confuses disability with illness and also implies that a disability may be a personal burden. Has … [condition]
Wheelchair bound People are not tied into their wheelchairs. A wheelchair offers the freedom to move around and is a valuable tool. Wheelchair user
Deaf and dumb Phrase is demeaning and inaccurate; many deaf people use sign language to communicate and dumb implies that someone is stupid. Hearing impaired person Hard of hearing person Deaf person Sign language user
Source: ‘Disabled people and terminology’, Manchester City Council website (Accessed 30 July 2007)

Activity task

Return to your list of challenging activities that you created in ‘Accessibility and disability’. In the light of your reading would you change the way that you have expressed your ideas?

You might like to use the Comments section below to post your list and comment on other people's lists.

Discuss the similarities and differences between the language and terminology you have each used. Try to find evidence on websites written by disabled people to reinforce your arguments.



Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling Imagery and the Media, The British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, Halifax, Ryburn Publishing.


Channel 4 (undated) ‘Watch your language’ [online], London, Channel 4 Television, www.channel4.com/life/microsites/B/bornfreak/language.htm (Accessed 31 July 2007).

DEMOS (2003) website http://jarmin.com/demos/.

DEMOS (2002) ‘Disability Awareness’ module [online], Manchester, DEMOS Project, http://jarmin.com/ demos/ course/ awareness/ 06.html (Accessed 31 July 2007).

DEMOS (2002) ‘Disability awareness terminology’ [online], Manchester, DEMOS Project, http://jarmin.com/ demos/ course/ awareness/ 08.html (Accessed 31 July 2007).

Disability Rights Commission (2006) Definition of disability consultation document www.drc.org.uk/ newsroom/ news_releases/ 2006/ consultation_on_definition_of.aspx (Accessed 31 July 2007).

Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

The Open University (2005) Open to Your Needs, Milton Keynes, The Open University; also available online at www8.open.ac.uk/ students/ essential-documents/ files/ essential-docs-pl/ file/ ecms/ web-content/ open-to-needs.pdf (Accessed 30 August 2012).

Wood, P. (1980) International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH), Geneva, World Health Organization.