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Understanding Disability

As an employer you should create an open, accessible and comfortable environment for each and every employee and potential employee.

Language matters and you should always be respectful of others and their feelings. 

When it comes to disability, some people advocate for the use of ‘people first’ language, which places emphasis on the person first and the disability second i.e. a person with a disability.

On the other hand, some disabled people say that they are not a ‘person with a disability,’ but rather they are a ‘disabled person.’

Irrespective of which language is used, the person is central and should not be objectified by using language such as ‘the disabled.’

If in doubt about what language to use, listen to how the individual talks about their disability or ask what their preference is. The person themselves is best placed to tell you what they are comfortable with.

There is no definitive list of conditions that constitute a disability. Disability can be visible or invisible and may or may not be disclosed. There are some notable definitions, which have been used in legislation and official documents.

The Disability Act (Government of Ireland, 2005)

The Disability Act (Government of Ireland, 2005) defines disability as:

 “a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State or to participate in social or cultural life in the State by reason of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment.’

The Equality Acts (Employment Equality Acts & Equal Status Acts) (1998-2015)

The Employment Equality Act, 1998 defines ‘disability’ as:

(a) the total or partial absence of a person's bodily or mental functions, including the absence of a part of a person's body,

(b) the presence in the body of organisms causing, or likely to cause, chronic disease or illness,

(c) the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of a person's body,

(d) a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction, or

(e) a condition, illness or disease which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement or which results in disturbed behaviour,

and shall be taken to include a disability which exists at present, or which previously existed but no longer exists, or which may exist in the future or which is imputed to a person.  

Census 2016

Census 2016, and other official surveys, used the following definition of disability:

A person with one or more of the following long-lasting conditions or difficulties:

  • Blindness or a severe vision impairment,
  • Deafness or a severe hearing impairment,
  • a difficulty with basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting or carrying,
  • an intellectual disability,
  • a difficulty with learning, remembering or concentrating,
  • a psychological or emotional condition and
  • a difficulty with pain, breathing or any other chronic illness or condition.

 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)

While the Convention does not include a definition of “disability” or “persons with disabilities’, elements of the preamble and article 1 provide guidance to clarify the application of the Convention.

There is recognition that “disability” is an evolving concept resulting from attitudinal and environmental barriers hindering the participation of persons with disabilities in society. Consequently, the notion of “disability” is not fixed and can alter, depending on the general environment.

Second, disability is not considered as a medical condition, but rather as a result of the interaction between negative attitudes or an unwelcoming environment with the condition of particular persons. By dismantling attitudinal and environmental barriers – as opposed to treating persons with disabilities as problems to be fixed – those persons can participate as active members of society and enjoy the full range of their rights.


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