Definitions of Disability 3. 1.

Author: Danijela Majcenovič Cipot

Keywords: Disability, models, interpretation

Disability is a concept that has during the years and different cultures been described from various perspectives. Although the authors of these perspectives use the same term, the meaning differs. This caused various interpretations of the term, what is not good from the person attached point of view – if these different interpretations cause deprivation of rights in one field, a person with disability is quickly in a subordinate position. “The lack of consistency is most dramatic when a person is defined as disabled in one context and not another, such that she or he receives therapies for serious impairments but does not qualify for certain disability-related benefits provided by his or her employer or by the government” (Altman, 2011:98). In her research of different models and concepts Altman produced a table, in which she summarized the differences in understanding of the term disability, that are most commonly used.


Disability (A)

Disability (B)

Disability (C)

Disability (D)

Disability (E)

Social model

ICIDH-1 model

Nagi model

Verbrugge and Jette model

IOM-1 and IOM-2 models


Limit or loss of opportunities to take part in community life because of physical and social barriers

In the context of health experience, any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being

Pattern of behaviour that evolves in situations of long-term or continued impairments that are associated with functional limitations

Disability is experiencing difficulty doing activities in any domain of life due to a health or physical problem

The expression of a physical or mental limitation in a social context-the gap between a person’s capabilities and the demands of the environment

Table 2: Variety of Meanings Given the Term Disability in Five Theoretical Models (Altman, B. M.: Disability Definitions, Models, Classification Schemes, and Applications. 2001).

Use of these contexts differs from one public sphere to another. Where rights and benefits of special groups is in sight, legal and administrative spheres tend to categorise disabled in groups granting them special rights, what can cause differences and unequal treatment and therefore inequalities between them. Social definitions are usually not considered a medical point of view and vice versa. In a medical context a person is seen in the light of his/her boundaries deriving from their disability and does not consider individuality. And there is always personal view of the usage of the right term – some people prefer the term handicapped for this relates to their ability to work, other prefer term person with disability or person with special needs. This always differs from how a person sees and defines him/herself.

All classification and categorisation of disability have special aspects on the person they refer to. Thus they are all imperfect and incomplete, because they do not emphasize a person as an individual, but tend to point out only certain aspects. In the light of adapted physical activities the most useful classification is based on functional level – what a person can do without or with different levels of assistance. Nowadays it is customary to describe the person first and then state the disability – ex. child with learning disability, person with multiple sclerosis…. what gives emphasis on the individual and doesn’t point out their disability. But still we must recognize that categorizing gives us fundamental knowledge about general characteristics of disability types and therefore it is useful in planning adaptive activities. It can provide a wider framework because it is essential to be aware of the fundamental characteristics of conditions as described in traditional disability classification and then take into account the unique characteristics (physiological and psychological) and functional abilities of a person with disability.


Altman, B. M. (2001). Disability Definitions, Models, Classification Schemes, and Applications. Published in: Albrecht, G.L., Seelman K., Bury M. (ed.), Handbook of Disability Studies (97-122). Thousand Oaks – London – New Delhi: Sage Publications Inc.

Squair, L., Groeneveld, H.J. (2003): Disability Definitions. Published in: R. D. Steadward, G. D. Wheeler and E. J. Watkinson (ed.), Adapted Physical Activity (45-64). Canada: The Univerity of Alberta Press