What is disability?

What is Disability?

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 people are defined as having a disability if they have any of a wide range of physical, mental health or learning conditions, including:

  • Loss or damage of a bodily or mental function
  • Diseases or illnesses
  • A disorder in their thought processes, emotions, judgment or behaviour.

The broad definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act includes people who may not consider themselves as having a disability, for example, people who have broken limbs from an accident and are temporarily using crutches or a wheelchair.

It also includes people who are colour blind or who use corrective devices such as reading glasses.  The law applies to such people if they experience discrimination as a result of their impairment. For example, if someone who needs reading glasses is prevented from using them at school or at work, they may be experiencing discrimination and are thus covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.

In other contexts, disability is defined less broadly. Many services aim to assist people with a particular type of disability and funding programs for students with disability have defined eligibility criteria.

A wide range of health and learning conditions meet the legal definition of disability


The Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education apply to people who have:

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

The definition includes a disability that:

  • Exists now; or previously existed but no longer exists
  • May exist in the future (some disabilities develop at a later date due to genetic or other factors)
  • Is imputed (attributed) to a person.

Behaviour that is a symptom or manifestation of the disability is specifically included in the definition of disability.

Source: Disability Discrimination Act 1992.


Not all disabilities are obvious. While using a wheelchair or a walking frame suggests a person has a disability, many people have less ‘visible’ disabilities. These may include mental health conditions, or neurological conditions.


Alice's future

Alice attends an early education centre, and will soon be moving to the school nearby. Although she is happy at the centre and gets along well with the other children, there are some signs of the long term effects of breathing difficulties she experienced at birth.

Alice has not seen a specialist for a diagnosis, but staff members have monitored her progress closely and are concerned that she may find it more difficult to participate in learning activities as she moves into school and faces more complex tasks. According to the Disability Discrimination Act, Alice has an imputed disability, as the staff members believe she has a disorder that may result in her learning differently. The centre, Alice’s parents, and the school have begun discussing Alice’s future learning needs.

Students who are Carers

The Disability Standards for Education also apply to students who care for a family member with a disability, even if the student does not have a disability. Some students, even while at primary school, care for a family member with disability. Where this affects their education, the school must consider the needs of the student and provide appropriate supports.


Cultural Views

People with disability reflect our society with its diverse racial, ethnic, religious, family, and other cultural groups. Students with disability and their parents and carers have the right to an education that takes into account their cultural values.

Different cultures may have different views of disability, and also different ways of responding to the needs of people with disability. This means that some people with disability may have different preferences about how their educational needs should be met. The Disability Standards for Education still apply to anybody who meets the broad definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act, even if that person or their associate does not acknowledge they have a disability.


Caring for Gil

Gil is in Year 6 and lives with his younger brother and his mother, who has depression. When his mother is unwell, Gil does extra housework and checks on his mother during the night. In class Gil is often tired and distracted, worrying that his mother will harm herself.

The Disability Standards for Education apply to Gil as a carer for a person with disability. Once the teacher is aware of his situation she meets with Gil and his family. They agree to allow Gil to carry his phone, on silent. When the phone vibrates, Gil gives a hand signal to the teacher who allows him to briefly leave the room and call his mother to check she is alright.


Disability is defined very broadly in the Disability Standards for Education. It includes loss of bodily function, damage to bodily function, disease or illness, and disorders of thought processes, emotions, judgement or behaviour. The Disability Standards for Education apply to all students with a disability. The Disability Standards for Education also apply to students who are carers of someone with a disability, even if they themselves do not have a disability.