What is disability?

What is disability?

A disability is often considered to be an impairment (mental or physical) that restricts how a person lives their life.  

However, the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons (2006) recognises that people are only disabled by their ability to interact with the people and environment around them. So a bumpy road may stop a wheelchair user reaching their destination. However, once that road is smoothly paved, the person in a wheelchair is no longer disabled by the surface and can travel like anyone else. Even better, a smoother surface is also good for cyclists, people pushing buggies/ carts and people who just don’t want to trip!

The World Bank states that one billion people globally experience some form of disability. That is around a fifth of the world’s population. However, numbers are difficult to pin down. Countries round the world measure disability in different ways. Most have different definitions of disability and different ways of viewing different conditions; for example, some cultures do not have words for depression, and others do not recognise autism as a diagnosis. 

Two blue characters are shown, wearing yellow jumpers and blue trousers. The character in the back is in a wheelchair and has their hand raised in greeting. The character in the front is wearing dark glasses and walking with a white cane to indicate blindness. Both are smiling.

In addition, many people do not consider themselves disabled; someone with a broken arm just has a temporary impairment, a dodgy knee is just something you live with, hearing loss is just a part of getting older but these people still have impairments that can hinder their access to the world around them.

So it is our role as educators to ensure that the attitudes and physical barriers in our classrooms are removed and children can access learning whatever their impairment. 

Types of impairment

The table below shows the types of physical and hidden impairments people can have, and it gives an indication of how it could impact on their ability to do schoolwork and participate in class. 


Take some time to look through the table below and consider the following:-

  • What can you add to the ‘potential issues’ column? 
  • Have any of your pupils had any of these issues?
  • Have you ever experienced any of these issues
A group of blue characters, all wearing yellow and dark blue clothes. One is in a wheelchair with head and foot rests and their hand is bent up to indicate cerebral palsy. Another is wearing a cochlear implant for deafness on their head. A third person has their left forearm missing and the fourth person is moving their hands backwards and forwards quickly.
DisabilityPotential Issue
Physical
Impacting: 
Mobility
Dexterity
Stamina
Fatigue
-Student may not be physically able to do a task.
-Student may get over-exerted or tired easily. 
-Student might not be able to make notes in class as you are speaking
Developmental
Impacting:
Understanding 
Learning
Memory
Social interactions
-The pupil might not be able to understand or process what is being explained.
-Pupil might struggle to interpret spoken and body language.  
-Pupil might not recall conversations and may have difficulty remembering homework, previous lessons, upcoming events at school, the names of classmates or staff. 
-Individuals might misunderstand or misinterpret what you are communicating.
-Pupil might behave in ways you do not expect. 
Behavioural/emotional
Impacting: 
Mental health
Social interactions
Behaviour 
Stress and anxiety levels
-Students may feel depressed or anxious and possibly misunderstand or misinterpret what you are communicating. 
-Student’s frame of mind can affect their behaviour and that of their siblings or parents. 
-Student might behave or react in ways you do not expect.
Sensory impaired
Impacting: 
Vision
Hearing
Touch
Taste
Smell
-Noisy or busy environments can be confusing and stressful. 
-Sight impaired individuals might not be able to find their way around school’s environment.
-Pupil might not be able to read smaller text in books or on the board.
-Hearing and sight impaired pupils might misunderstand or misinterpret what you are communicating.
-Pupil might feel excluded from class activities.

Key learning points

~ people are ‘disabled’ because they cannot access the world around them. If you remove those barriers then they are ‘enabled’ instead.

~Pupils (and their parents) may have physical or hidden impairments that might affect their interactions with you. 

~Being aware of those impairments and making appropriate adjustments will go a long way in building constructive relationships with both pupils and parents. 

Image shows a family of blue characters. A father, mother and small child are standing together. The father and child are holding hands. The mother is standing close behind them.

Discussion Point

~What adjustments have you made for pupils in the past? What was the outcome?

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