What is a disability?

what is a disability

1 in 5 Australians has one or more disabilities. This means that sometime in our life, we, or a friend, family member, class mate and/or work mate are likely to have a disability.

A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have a minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities. The term disability also refers to people who have a medical condition, such as mental illness, diabetes, epilepsy or HIV AIDS. 90% of disabilities are invisible.

Although some people are born with disability, many people who currently have a disability may have spent much of their lives without it – for example, people who have acquired their disability through a workplace incident or car accident, and people who may have acquired a disability as they age.


People with disability can be found in all parts of our community. People with disability are teachers, students, police officers, truck drivers, carers, managers, customers, children, young people, older people, indigenous and non-indigenous and from all cultural backgrounds.

People with the same type of disability actually experience their disability in very individual ways. Knowing what type of disability a person has tells you only a little about how that person’s disability affects them and their life.

The one thing that people with disability have in common is that they may be unable to do particular things the same way that most other people do without some type of adjustment, alteration or accommodation. These adjustments are mostly relatively easy and inexpensive to make.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) spells out the rights and responsibilities of Australians to be protected against, prevent and take action against discrimination and/or harassment based on disability. This law defines disability very broadly and includes points that you and many others may not have thought of as a disability. The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) says that a disability includes any:

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