How is Disability Defined?

Disability is defined as “long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory [impairment] which in interaction with various barriers may hinder [a person’s] full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (1).

Advocacy by organizations over the last 30 years have led to a change in perspective towards persons with disabilities (2). Before, society viewed persons with disabilities as people who needed to be fixed (3). Now, disability is seen through the social model (4) and the human rights model (5). The social model sees the problem lying with society where barriers are the problem– not the individuals themselves (6). The social model fights for equity, rights, non-discrimination, and social inclusion (7). The human rights model builds on the social model (8). It “focuses on the inherent dignity of the human being and subsequently, but only if necessary, on the person’s medical characteristics” (9). Along with human rights, the human rights model advocates for civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights (10).

Notes on this page

1 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Geneva, 2006), 4.
2-4 Gerison Lansdown, Using the Human Rights Framework to Promote the Rights of Children with Disabilities: An analysis of the synergies between CRC, CRPD and CEDAW (New York, UNICEF, 2012), 4.
5 Theresia Degener, Routledge Handbook of Disability Law and Human Rights (2016), 32.
6 Human Rights Framework, 6.
7 Ibid, 4.
8, Routledge Handbook, 32.
9 Ibid., 34.
10 Ibid., 35.

Prendergast, S. (2018). Disability Rights Information sheets in child friendly language. Prepared for Shaking the Movers/ Inclusive Early Childhood Service System project Youth Advisory Event, October, 13 and 14, 2018. IECSS: Toronto, ON. Accessed online: http://inclusiveearlychildhood.ca/disability-and-childrens-rights/how-is-disability-defined/