Definitions of disability reflect society’s view of disability and of people with impairments. Recently, definitions have been developed by disabled people to explain the disabling effects of society and the way it is organised on the lives of people with impairments. Consideration of these definitions led to the development of models of disability - the ‘social model’ has had a fundamental impact on legislation.
Within higher education two other approaches to defining or categorising disability are important.
There are also evidence requirements for those applying for the Disabled Students' Allowances.
Terminology and language are very important. They have changed over the years, often several times, and disabled people themselves sometimes disagree on which terminology is acceptable. To help you, we have provided guidance on currently acceptable terminology.
More broadly, in the late 1970s the World Health Organization (WHO) devised a new classification system for disability.
By this classification disability is essentially seen as the ‘responsibility’ of the person with impairments and is not related to the way in which society is organised. The words used in these definitions are uniformly negative. The definitions were strongly opposed by organisations controlled and run by disabled people because they promote a view that individual impairments are the determining factor in explaining both disability and handicap.
A different definition of disability was proposed by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1976, since extended to accommodate all impairments, and adopted by national and international organisations of disabled people.
Disability is the disadvantage or restriction caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have [physical] impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities.
By this definition disability is external to the individual, and is a result of environmental and social factors: disabled people are people with impairments who are disabled by barriers in society.
These fundamentally opposing definitions of disability form the basis of the two most important models of disability - the medical model and the social model.