Definition of disability

Updated on 23 April 2022

Guidance on the definition of disability including the University's recognition of the Social Model of Disability

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All disabled students are advised to register with Disability Services as soon as possible to ensure individual support arrangements are made.

Under the Equality Act, a disabled person is defined as someone who has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This definition covers a wide range of physical, mental and sensory impairments, including specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, mental health difficulties and chronic health conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and depression. The definition also includes people with cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis from the point of diagnosis.

Further information is available on the definition of disability on the GOV.UK website‌

If you think you may have a disability and would benefit from support then please contact Disability Services in confidence

Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability states that the poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion experienced by many disabled people is not the inevitable result of their impairments or medical conditions, but rather stems from attitudinal and environmental barriers within society. This view recognises that disabled people have impairments but, unlike the medical model of disability, maintains that the exclusion they experience is caused by society not their individual impairments.

The University recognises the importance of identifying and removing barriers to disabled people by making changes to its policies, practices and procedures that impact on disability equality. The University therefore supports the principles of the Social Model of Disability and will endeavour to eliminate all barriers to disabled people across all areas of University activity, including raising awareness and promoting the use of the preferred language of disability.

Preferred language of disability

The Social Model of Disability uses the preferred language of disability that recognises that people have 'impairments', and that 'disability' is the outcome of the interaction between a person with an impairment and the attitudinal and environmental barriers they face. As such, the use of the term 'disabled people' is generally preferred over 'people with disabilities' as it places the emphasis on the disabling effects of attitudinal and other barriers rather than on individual impairment.

The preferred language of disability also recognises that barriers can be reinforced by the use of terminology that creates a negative view or passive role for disabled people (as in the expressions 'suffering from' or 'wheelchair bound'), or by the use of terminology that views people with the same impairment as a homogeneous group (as in the term 'the disabled'). The use of such language should therefore be avoided and the preferred language of disability used in all communications with or about disabled people.

Further information on appropriate disability language and communication is available from the Business Disability Forum's Disability Communication Guide.


Disability Services

+44 (0)1382 385402