Disability definitions and etiquette

The term 'disability' covers a variety of situations.

Disability is a term covering personal impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. The most common disability types for adults are physical and sensory disabilities.


  • can result from accident, illness, congenital disorders or genes.
  • can be of many different kinds - physical, intellectual or mental health-related.
  • may be visible or hidden, permanent or temporary and may have a little or major impact on a person’s life.
  • may affect mobility, ability to learn, or ability to communicate easily.

Most disabled people can do most things that people without disability can do. Sometimes a person may need some form of adjustment or support (eg a guide dog or adapted technology) to help them manage the effect of their disability. No two people are the same, and even people with the same disability don’t experience it in the same way.

  • People often worry about saying the wrong thing when talking to people with a disability. If you are unsure about how to say something, ask the person what they prefer. Respectful language about disability and disabled people should be used even if a disabled person is not present.
  • Never describe people by their impairments eg 'an epileptic', or 'a diabetic'.
  • People without a disability should be described as 'non-disabled' rather than 'able bodied' as people with learning difficulties or mental health problems may consider themselves as disabled.
  • Don't be embarrassed about using common expressions such as 'see you later' in front of someone who has a visual impairment or 'you'll hear from me soon' to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

More Information – For more information on disability etiquette, visit the Office of Disability issues(external link).

The New Zealand Disability Strategy:

"Disability is not something individuals have. What individuals have are impairments. They may be physical, sensory, neurological, psychiatric, intellectual or other impairments... Disability is the process which happens when one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have..."

Statistics NZ:

"any self-perceived limitation in activity resulting from a long-term condition or health problem; lasting longer or expected to last longer than six months or more and not completely eliminated by an assistive device".

The Human Rights Act 1993:

physical disability or impairment: physical illness: psychiatric illness: intellectual or psychological disability or impairment: any other loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological: or anatomical structure or function: reliance on a guide dog, wheelchair, or other remedial means: the presence in the body of organisms capable of causing illness.

The World Health Organisation:

"...any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner of within the range considered normal for a human being".
The perception of whether a disability exists remains that of the staff member concerned - individuals choose to self-identify as having a disability.

The UN Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

Persons with disabilities include 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.

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