On this page:
  • How is disability defined?
  • What counts as a disability or impairment?
  • The social model of disability

How is disability defined?

The UK’s Equality Act (2010) defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” 
This formulation can cause some confusion due to the way it defines the terms 'disability' and 'impairment'. See The Social Model of Disability below.
The law says that, where a disabled person is placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled people, bodies such as the College have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to try and help overcome that disadvantage. This duty applies to provisions and practices such as examinations and teaching materials, though to the accessibility of venues and buildings. 

What counts as a disability or impairment?

Examples may include long-term difficulties in any of the following areas:
  • Mobility & Manual dexterity
  • Physical co-ordination
  • Continence
  • Ability to lift & carry objects
  • Speech, vision or hearing
  • Memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand
  • Enduring difficulties with mental health
  • Enduring difficulties with social communication
  • Long-term health conditions

The social model of disability

This is a tool developed by disabled people to explain the barriers they face in their external environment. It also helps to develop practical strategies to promote inclusive provision in higher education. 
The social model distinguishes individual impairments – an absence or limitation of function in the way our minds, bodies or senses work – from disability. It theorises disability as a product of social, environmental and attitudinal barriers, rather than situating the problem with the individual.  
The social model was developed in response to the medical or individual model of disability. This suggested that the ‘problem’ of disability resides with the individual disabled person and their impairment(s) rather than with society. This earlier model has been widely criticised for perpetuating social and economic inequality, and for lowering disabled people’s expectations because it focuses on impairment above any other aspects of a disabled person's identity.  
This is a helpful distinction as, for the most part, barriers can be removed. 
Since the passage of the UK Equality Act (2010), the law requires that reasonable adjustments can be made which remove or reduce the impact of such barriers in a timely way. This allows for wider participation in society, including for people who are not disabled. Examples in the context of education would include the provision of electronic copies of lecture materials in advance and the networking of assistive technology software.  
The Disability Advisory Service embraces the social model approach to disability. This is also why we prefer to use the term ‘disabled person’ in preference to ‘person with a disability’. We do, however, recognise that preferences around language and terminology vary from country to country.  
The Disability Advisory Service adopts the social model approach in alignment with the Equality Act (2010), the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), and the General Medical Council (GMC).