What is disability?

A disability is any condition of the body or brain that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.

Disabilities come in many different forms, some are visible and some are invisible. Some people are born with disabilities and other people go through experiences that disable them, such as having an accident or having Covid. 

Living with disability is very common, in Australia around 18% of the population are estimated to have a disability — that’s 1 in 5 people. Even this figure is likely to be an undercount as the data we collect relies on people with disabilities defining themselves as disabled, and being open about their disability. Understanding how common disability is and how much disabilities can vary is an important step toward understanding what it’s like to live with a disability.

Ways society sees people with disability

Many people living with disabilities report similar experiences of discrimination and barriers to being included at work and in social situations.

People with disabilities often face other forms of oppression based on things like their gender, race, sexuality, or how much money they have. We call this intersectionality — it means we look at how different factors affect how people are treated by society. For example, a person who is disabled and a woman may face more challenges than a person who is disabled and a man. We need to try and understand these different experiences to work towards a more inclusive and respectful world for everyone.

Ways of understanding disability 

Different ways of thinking or ‘models’ are used to understand disability — the medical model, the charitable model, the social model, and the human rights model.

The medical model of disability

The medical model sees disability primarily as a personal health issue to be managed by doctors and healthcare professionals. This approach labels people with disabilities as ‘not normal,’ suggesting the challenge of fitting into the world falls solely on people with disabilities rather than expecting society to change and become more accessible.

The charitable model of disability

The charitable model of disability views individuals with disabilities as people in need of help, sympathy, or charity from others. It sees disability primarily as a problem or deficiency that the person has, rather than a difference to be embraced or an issue related to societal barriers. 

This perspective can lead to treating people with disabilities as if they are not capable of living full, independent lives or making their own decisions. While it might come from a place of wanting to help, the charity model can unintentionally support ideas that people with disabilities are less than others, rather than empowering them or working to remove obstacles in society that limit their participation and equality.

The social model of disability

The social model sees disability as socially constructed. This means people aren’t disabled because of a medical issue but because society hasn’t adjusted to meet their needs. Essentially, the challenges many people with disabilities face don’t come from their physical or mental conditions and abilities, they come from the way our world is built and operates.

Picture this: if everyone had wings and our world was built for flying — doorways on the second floor, kitchen cabinets near the ceiling — but suddenly, you lost your wings. How would you enter buildings or cook? It’s not the absence of wings that’s the barrier; it’s that our environment hasn’t been designed to include those who can’t fly.

The Human Rights Model of Disability

The human rights model of disability is about seeing disability in a new light. It moves past the idea that disabilities need fixing or that people with disabilities need to be saved. The human rights model also realises that just changing society isn’t enough on its own.

This approach is about celebrating everyone’s unique qualities, including disabilities, as a valuable part of human diversity. It focuses on empowering people with disabilities by ensuring that they have equal rights under the law. 

This approach is all about making sure everyone can fully take part in life – from school and work to getting involved in culture and politics. The goal is to create a world where everyone feels seen, heard, and able to thrive, without anyone being excluded because of their abilities

To dive deeper into how these models differ and what they mean for people with disabilities visit the Youth Disability Advocacy Service

Check out this video, which offers a great visual explanation of these four models:

Australia’s Approach to Disability

Australia has adopted the human rights model of disability. This aligns with global efforts, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Australia supports. It champions the idea that all people with disabilities have the right to make their own choices and live with dignity.

Societies still have a long way to go and the fight for equality for people with disabilities is not over. Many people with disabilities still face unfair treatment and find it hard to be fully included in everyday activities. It’s important to recognise these challenges because it helps us understand what needs to change.

By working together and speaking up about these issues, we can make a difference and help build a world where everyone, no matter their abilities, is included and valued equally.

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