Classification of Disability 3. 2.

Author: Valentina Bolšec

Keywords: disability, mental illness, physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, recommendations

People differ from each other according to their physical, sensory, and other abilities. Also, the types of disability are different, covering all long-term physical, mental and sensory impairments and mental disorders that disable the person in order to function fully and participate in society. Persons with disabilities are classified in categories of disability according to impairments and other indicators. Since people differ from each other, we must never equate two people with the same disability category; each person functions in his/her own way and at his/her best (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003). From the perspective of its etiology and basic understanding, we can place disability in the following classification:

Mental disorders

Mental disorder is a medical condition that includes changes in thinking, emotions and behaviour or a combination of all and is associated with distress or difficulties in the field of social life, work, and family. It can occur anytime and anywhere, regardless of age, gender, financial and social status, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or cultural identity. It can occur in different intensities and can even cause a person to require hospital treatment (Parekh, 2018). Mental disorders are often the cause of stigma due to a lack of knowledge and awareness amongst the public. Patients are afraid to seek help due to shame, which can, of course, cause the situation to worsen. Mental disorders that cause impairment are: mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder), anxiety, phobia, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, personality disorders, multiple personality disorders, etc. (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Recommendations: persons with mental disorders may often have difficulty participating in physical activity due to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and/or hopelessness. Individuals may need prompting or motivational tips to attend a program or activity. It is also recommended that they are accompanied by a friend/carer/support worker and transported to the activity location. They need to feel comfortable and safe in the environment (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Physical Disabilities

Physical disability can cause problems in various areas such as neuromuscular, cardiovascular, orthopaedic and pulmonary areas, and limit a person’s movement, swallowing, breathing and/or speech (Nkabinde, Obiakor, Offor & Smith, 2010). People with physical disabilities tend to rely on devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, walking frames, rods or artificial limbs. Disability can be congenital or acquired, which is developed after birth and is not hereditary, degenerative, or induced by birth trauma (O’Reilly et al., 2015). In the category of physical disability, we include conditions such as arthritis, asthma, amputation, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), arthrogryposis, brain injury, cerebral palsy (spastic CP, athetoid CP, ataxic CP), congenital hip dislocation, cystic fibrosis, diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, Friedreich’s ataxia, Guillain-Barre syndrome, hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, osteogenesis imperfecta, osteomyelitis, osteoporosis, paralysis, Parkinson’s diesase, polyomyelitis, spina bifida, spinal cord injury, Tourette syndrome and tuberculosis (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Recommendations: it is important that we adapt activities to individual abilities and needs of the person and to take into account all the barriers which may occur. We need to ensure the safety and protection for persons, especially when they have problems maintaining balance.

Sensory Disabilities

We get to know the world around us through our senses, which enable us to collect and understand information and connect with people and our surroundings. As much as 95% of all environmental information is obtained through hearing and sight, therefore, the failure of these senses greatly affects the way a person collects information about the environment (Types of sensory disabilities, 2019). It is not necessary for a person to completely lose hearing or sight to be regarded as a disabled person with sensory deficits. Sensory deficits include a partial or complete loss of hearing, vision, or a combination of both. Squair and Groeneveld (2003) claim that hearing loss can be divided into three categories: conductive, sensory-neural and mixed hearing loss. Visual impairments can be caused by albinism, cataracts, glaucoma, retinal blastoma and rubella.

Recommendations: individuals, who have a visual disability, may need orientation of the area where the activity is taking place. For partially sighted, colour contrasts might be appropriate. We can provide auditory cues, where descriptive language is used. Individual can be also guided or moved by another person. For persons with hearing disability it is important that instructions are given face to face. Also visible signals and demonstrations should be used (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Learning Disabilities

We talk about learning disabilities when one or more of the basic psychological processes involving understanding or using spoken or written language exist. Individuals with a learning disability may have difficulty with input of information to the brain, organizing and understanding information, storing information in memory, communicating through language or motor output. Learning disabilities can be broken down into attention deficiency-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental coordination disorder (DCD) (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Recommendations: when planning physical activity for people with learning disabilities, we must take into account the difficulties of learning cognitive information and some motor coordination difficulties. For individuals with ADHD, who have very little patience, it is very important, that we set an environment with few distractions. The activity should be consistent and structured (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).

Developmental Disabilities

Developmental disability is defined as severe, chronic disability attributable to mental and/or physical impairments that are likely to continue indefinitely; resulting in substantial functional limitations in three or more major life activity areas: self-care, receptive or expressive language, learning, self-direction, capacity for independent living and economic self-sufficiency and requiring care, treatment or other services of lifelong or extended duration. (Larson et al., 2001, p. 231-232). Squair and Groeneveld (2003) divide developmental disabilities into: Asperger’s disorder, autism, Alzheimer’s disease/dementia/senility, Down’s syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome (FS), fetal alcohol effects (FAE) and intellectual disability.

Recommendations: for persons with developmental disabilities directions and instructions should be clear, brief, concise, with appropriate vocabulary and simple language that suits the level of understanding. It is recommended that in order to ascertain participant’s level of understanding the facilitator should get the participants to repeat the instructions or demonstrate them. Also the use of pictures, videos, other visual aids, games and repetitions are very effective. Instructions can be broken into sequential steps for successful learning. The use of a buddy system is also recommended (Squair and Groeneveld, 2003).


Larson, S. A., Lakin, K. C., Anderson, L., Kwak Lee, N., Lee, J. H., & Anderson, D. (2001). Prevalence of mental retardation and developmental disabilities: estimates from the 1994/1995 National Health Interview Survey Disability Supplements. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 106(3), 231-252

Nkabinde, Z. P., Obiakor, F. E., Offor, M. T., & Smith, D. J. (2010). Educating Children with Physical Disabilities

O’Reilly, M. F., Sammarco, N., Kuhn, M., Gevarter, C., Watkins, L., Gonzales, H. K.,... & Lang, R. (2015). Inborn and Acquired Brain and Physical Disabilities. In Clinical and Organizational Applications of Applied Behavior Analysis (pp. 179-193). Academic Press

Parekh, R. (2018). What Is Mental Illness? Retrieved 20.5.2019 from

Squair, L., Groeneveld, H. J. (2003). Disability Definitions. In R. D. Steadward, G. D. Wheeler and E. J. Watkinson (ed.), Adapted Physical Activity (11-25). Canada: The Univerity of Alberta Press

Types of sensory disabilities, 2019. Retrieved 21.5.2019 from