Approaches to disability and use of language

Approaches to disability

It is important for donors to understand and recognise the models and approaches to disability that may be reflected in different development settings and legislative or policy frameworks.

As the Preamble to the UNCRPD notes in paragraph (e), disability is an evolving concept. Globally there have been changes in the way society has understood and responded to disability.

Historically, several approaches to disability have prevailed:

  • A medical model which has focused on the need for health treatment and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities in order to enable them to meet societal norms and 'fit' into society. Medical and welfare professionals are seen as 'experts' on disability and thus persons with disabilities themselves often have limited decision making power.
  • A charity model which sees persons with disabilities as passive recipients of welfare and 'help', and can emphasise the segregation of persons with disabilities from mainstream community life in order to care for them.

Both of these approaches are disempowering of persons with disabilities, and fail to take into account the need to address the disabling impact of barriers that exist in society's broader systems and structures.

  • The social model, in its purest form, places the emphasis purely on the disabling physical, policy and attitudinal barriers that exist in society and disable a person with an impairment.

Disability inclusive development should take a rights based approach. This incorporates social model thinking where external barriers are identified in conjunction with persons with disabilities being the focal point in the attainment of their rights

  • A rights based approach emphasises the dignity and worth of persons with disabilities, their rights to access all life opportunities on an equal basis with others, and their role as active participants in their own development. This approach is reflected in the UNCRPD which defines persons with disabilities as encompassing "those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others." (emphasis added).

Use of language

Interpretation of the social and rights based model of disability recognises that persons with disabilities are people first. Recommended language when discussing or referencing disability in a document is person-first language. For example: 'a student who is blind', 'a woman with fistula', 'a person who uses a wheelchair'.

This site adopts the terminology 'persons with disabilities' as the language used by the UNCRPD. Other resources to which the site links will use a variety of terms. It is important to be able to use terminology which is respectful and person-centred.

Links to resources below provide explanation of the models of disability, guidance on principles informing a rights based approach, and practical guidance and tips on language.

American Psychological Association Choosing Words for Talking about Disability web page

This page provides guidance for why, how and what terminology is used for disability. This page will clarify the distinction of person-first and identity-first language. There are 6 small sections: • Defining Disability and Handicap • Putting People First • Identity-first Language for Disability • Disability Community Perspectives • Words Matter: What to DO • Suggested Readings.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Articles 3 and Article 4 set out the general principles and obligations of the UNCRPD which are helpful principles and obligations to guide and inform policy and programming.

WHO (2002) Towards a common language for functioning, disability and health: ICF (PDF 221 KB)

This introductory guide explains the WHO conceptual framework the International Classification for Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). This framework takes into account both the impairment related aspects of disability as well as contextual factors, (environmental factors, such as barriers, and personal factors, such as age, gender). It has been described as the ‘bio-psycho-social approach’. Whilst the UNCRPD provides a conceptualisation of disability, it purposely does not definitively define or operationalise it, noting that it is an evolving concept. The ICF provides a standard language and operational framework that is utilised to guide clinical practice, disability measurement, research and policy development by the WHO as well as a number of other agencies. For example, the ICF was used as a conceptual framework within the WHO and World Bank (2011) World Report on Disability. The ICF predates the UNCRPD and does not refer to human rights of persons with disabilities.

World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (2008) Psychosocial disability (Word 125 KB)

This position paper describes the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry’s preferred terminology to describe persons with psychosocial disabilities, including its position on the use of the more commonly known term ‘mental illness’.

CBM (2012) Inclusion made easy: A quick program guide to disability in development – Part A (Accessible Word 742 KB, PDF 2.5 MB)

This practical guide provides broad programming guidance for disability inclusive development. It is targeted at program personnel in development organisations. Page 2 summarises the different approaches to disability, and explains their relevance to disability inclusive development.

UNICEF/Victor Pineda Foundation (2009) It’s about ability: A learning guide on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (1.52 MB)

This learning guide is a companion to It's about ability: An explanation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, written to help children to understand the UNCRPD. It contains learning activities and fact sheets to explain the UNCRPD in simple language. Pages 8-25 provide simple explanations of differing approaches to disability, including a rights based approach.

People with Disabilities Australia (PWDA) Terminology used by PWDA

This web page published by PWDA, an Australian Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO), provides recommended terminology and language on disability.

There are no case studies available

Washington Group on Disability Statistics technical presentation

Jennifer H. Madans Ph.D., Associate Director for Science, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and Mitchell Loeb,
Health Scientist, NCHS from the secretariat of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics delivered a technical session
on how to use the Washington Group questions in monitoring data systems and how to disaggregate data by disability
followed by a question and answer session at the University of Melbourne on Thursday, 30 April 2015. The presentation
was organised by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Presentation from the Washington Group on Disability Statistics
Picture of an advocacy poster produced by the National Disability Resource and Advocacy Centre, Papua New Guinea. The poster shows a man sitting in a wheelchair in profile. The poster reads "Your ignorance is our disability; Do not judge us by our disability".

Photo: Travelling together project.

Advocacy poster from the National Disability Resource and Advocacy Centre (NDRAC), Papua New Guinea, highlighting the impact of stigma against persons with disabilities. NDRAC is a small NGO which advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities in PNG, and serves as a national focal point on disability issues within the country. Copyright: NDRAC