Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology

These guidelines on disability terminology and definitions are taken from "A Pocket Guide On Disability Equity" prepared by Disabled People South Africa (DPSA).


"Disability is the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a society that takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream activity."

(British Council of Organisations of Disabled People)


The definition and classification of disabled persons have gone through a number of changes over the centuries.

Biomedical Definition
Disability is identified with illness or impairment in the biomedical approach, with most emphasis falling on curing the disabled individual. If this fails, the person is removed from society.

Philanthropic Definition
Disability is regarded as a tragedy or object of sympathy and charity. People with disabilities are therefore pitied, given handouts and cared for in separate institutions.

Sociological Definition
This approach defines disability as a form of human difference or deviation from the social norms of the acceptable levels of activity performance.

Economic Definition
Disability is defined as a social cost caused both by extra resources that children and adults with disabilities require and by their limited productivity at work, relative to able-bodied people.

Socio-Political Definition as Adopted by the Integrated National Disability Framework
Disability needs to be defined within context, rather than focussing on the inability of people that inadvertently leads to stigmatisation and categorisation. The Integrated National Disability Framework has therefore adopted a socio-political approach to disability, whereby disability is located in the social environment. This takes cognisance of disabled people's viewpoint that disability is a social construct and most of its effects are inflicted upon people with disabilities by their social environment e.g. it is not the disability, nor the wheelchair that disables a person but it is the stairs leading to a building.


Disabled people during the 1970s used their personal experience of disability and institutional life to show that it wasn't their impairments that caused the problem but the way in which society failed to make any allowances for their differences and instead locked them away.

Medical Model Approach
Traditional approaches say that the inability to carry out activities is caused by impairment or impairments; for example, you are not mobile because you have a spinal injury. This understanding of disability is said to be a medical model of disability because the causes of disability are attributed only to medical conditions.

Social Model Approach
This social model is not limited by such a narrow description of activities. It takes the wider view that the ability to take such activities is dependant upon social intervention. It can show that the limitation of activity is not caused by impairments but is a consequence of social organisation- hence the phrase 'social model'.

In short, the social model says that a person is disabled if the world at large will not take into account their physical or mental differences.


Language reflects the social context in which it is developed and used. It therefore reflects the values and attitudes of that context, and plays an important role in reinforcing values and attitudes that lead to discrimination and segregation of particular groups in society. Language can therefore be used as a powerful tool to facilitate change and bring about new values, attitudes and social integration

Here are a few examples of the preferred terminology for English1.

  • Although some disabled people prefer the terms "physically challenged" or "differently abled", these should not generally be used. The disability rights movement of South Africa accepts both the terms "disabled person" and "people with disabilities".

  • Avoid "suffers from," "afflicted with" or "victim of", all of which cast disabilities as a negative. "Suffers from" indicates ongoing pain and torment, which is no more the case for most people with disabilities as it is for most people without disabilities. "Afflicted with" denotes a disease, which most disabilities are not. "Victim of" implies that a crime is being committed on the person who has a disability.

  • Do not use "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair". People see their wheelchairs as a convenient mode of transportation, not prisons, and the "bound/confined" phrase belies the fact that many people with motor disabilities engage in activities without their wheelchairs, including driving and sleeping. The proper phrase is "uses a wheelchair".

  • Use "disability" not "handicap." The word "handicap" derives from the phrase "cap in hand", referring to a beggar, and is despised by most people with disabilities. Other terms to avoid are "physically/mentally challenged" (who isn't?) "cripple" or "crippled."

  • Use "able-bodied" or "people without disabilities." The terms "normal" and "whole" are inappropriate and inaccurate.

  • Most disabilities are not a disease. Do not call person with a disability a "patient" unless referring to a hospital setting. In an occupational and physical therapy context, "client" or "customer" is preferred.

  • Some diseases by legal definition are considered disabilities. Victimization imagery ("AIDS victims") or defining the person by the disease ("she is a diabetic") is inappropriate. Use "person with diabetes" or "people living with AIDS".

  • People who consider themselves as part of Deaf culture refer to themselves as "Deaf" with a capital "D". Because their culture derives from their language, they may be identified in the same way as other cultural groups, for example "Shangaan". Never use the terms Deaf-mute or Deaf and Dumb.

  • Avoid "deformed," "deformity" and "birth defect". A person may be "born without arms" or "has a congenital disability," but is probably not defective.

  • Use "person with Down syndrome." Avoid "Mongol" or "mongoloid."

  • Avoid "mentally retarded", "insane", "slow learner", "learning disabled" and "brain damaged". Use "person with an intellectual disability", or "person with a psychiatric disability".

  • Avoid "cerebral palsied" and "spastic". Use "person with cerebral palsy".

  • Use "person with epilepsy" or "child with a seizure disorder". Avoid "epileptic", either as noun or adjective.

  • Avoid "dwarf" or "midget". Some groups prefer "little/short", but its best to use "person of short stature".

  • Use "man with paraplegia" or "she has quadriplegia". Avoid "paraplegic" or "quadriplegic" as either a noun or adjective.

Negative and patronizing language produces negative and patronizing images. Words are important, so make sure your words do not offend or reinforce negative stereotypes.

1 (With acknowledgement to Patricia Digh of Real Work Group sighted in the DPSA (Disabled People South Africa) "A Pocket Guide on Disability Equity".
The content on this page was last updated on 15 March 2014