What is disability?

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) defines disability as:

  • total or partial loss of the person’s bodily or mental functions
  • total or partial loss of a part of the body
  • the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness
  • the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of the person’s body
  • a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction
  • a disorder, illness or disease that affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment, or that results in disturbed behaviour;

and includes disability that:

  • presently exists
  • previously existed but no longer exists
  • may exist in the future
  • is imputed to a person (meaning it is thought or implied that the person has disability but does not).

There are many different kinds of disability and they can result from accidents, illness or genetic disorders. A disability may affect mobility, ability to learn things, or ability to communicate easily, and some people may have more than one. A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.

Although some people are born with disability, many people acquire disability. For example, a person may acquire a disability through a workplace incident or car accident, or may develop a disability as they age. There is a strong relationship between age and disability; as people grow older, there is a greater tendency to develop conditions which cause disability, as identified in the table below.


Percentage of population affected by disability

4 years and under


5-14 years


15-24 years 


25-34 years 


35-44 years 


45-54 years 


55-59 years


60-64 years


65-69 years


70-74 years 


75-79 years


80-84 years 


85-89 years 


90 years and over


Who are people with disability?

Disability is part of human diversity. Over 4 million people, almost one in five people in Australia, have a disability and this proportion is increasing with an ageing population. People with disability purchase consumer goods, have jobs, go on holidays, access information and contribute to society in the same way that people without disability do. The only difference is that often people with disability come up against significant barriers while trying to do the things that many of us take for granted.

Types of disability

17.7% of the Australian population live with disability. Disability can be visible or non-visible, with a higher prevalence of non-visible disability in Australia. Disability can be inherited or acquired (due to illness or injury) and can be temporary or permanent.

The breadth of impairments and medical conditions covered by the DDA are set out below:

  • Physical - affects a person's mobility or dexterity
  • Intellectual - affects a person's abilities to learn
  • Mental Illness - affects a person's thinking processes
  • Sensory - affects a person's ability to hear or see
  • Neurological – affects the person’s brain and central nervous system,
  • Learning disability
  • Physical disfigurement or
  • Immunological - the presence of organisms causing disease in the body

To be deemed a disability, the impairment or condition must impact daily activities, communication and/or mobility, and has lasted or is likely to last 6 months or more.

People with disability are part of every section of our community: men, women and children; employers and employees; students and teachers; indigenous and non-indigenous; customers; and citizens. No two people with the same disability experience their disability in the same way.

The only thing that distinguishes a person with disability is they may require some form of adaptation/adjustment to enable them to do certain things in the same way as people without disability.

Employment and people with disability

According to the National Disability Strategy (2011):

Work is essential to an individual’s economic security and is important to achieving social inclusion.  Employment contributes to physical and mental health, personal wellbeing and a sense of identity.  Income from employment increases financial independence and raises living standards.

Unfortunately a lot more people with disability are unemployed than those without disability. However, of the people with disability who are employed, there is representation across many occupations. Professionals, managers and administrators are the largest occupational grouping and this represents 37% of people with disability in employment. Clerical sales and service workers are the second largest grouping representing approximately 30%, and the remaining occupational categories include tradespersons, production, and transport workers as well as labourers and related workers representing approximately 33% of people with disability in employment.

Related information

Human Rights Commission

Australian Bureau of Statistics