For many, the term 'disability' brings to mind people in wheelchairs who have mobility issues, and this is understandable considering the wheelchair is the global symbol for disability. However, the reality is that disabilities are wide ranging. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 'disability' refers to a huge spectrum of impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.
An impairment is classed as a problem in body function or structure. An activity limitation is something that causes difficulties when undertaking a task or actions. Participation restriction causes difficulties when undertaking day-to-day tasks.
Worldwide, there are 650 million people living with some form of disability, while in Great Britain alone seven million people are disabled. Typically, only 17% of disabilities are present at birth, while the majority will develop later in life. There are many different causes and types of disability, and this page will look further into these as well as treatment options available to help people cope and better manage their condition.
On this page
- Types of disability
- Common disabilities
- The Disability Discrimination Act
- What can cause a disability?
Types of disability
A disability can be any physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional, or developmental condition that hampers or reduces a person's ability to carry out everyday tasks. In some cases, people may have a combination of disabilities or all of the ones mentioned above. A disability can be present at birth, or occur later in life, depending on the nature of the condition.
Below is a list of the various types of disability, listed into key sub categories:
- Mobility and physical - These include manual dexterity, disability in coordination with different organs of the body as well as upper and lower limb disabilities.
- Spinal cord - These include Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Spina Bifida, and Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) which commonly occurs after a severe accident and can cause long-term disabilities.
- Head injuries/brain disability - Head injuries tend to vary in severity and are most commonly the result of serious accidents.
- Vision - Sight loss affects people of all ages, but tends to get worse with age. Vision impairment specifically refers to conditions such as a scratched cornea or diabetes-related eye conditions which can lead to blindness and ocular trauma.
- Hearing - Hearing disability includes people who are partially deaf as well as completely deaf. Deafness can occur with age or can be evident at birth, and in some cases may be due to a biological cause such as meningitis.
- Cognitive or learning - These include learning difficulties such as dyslexia, as well as speech disorders.
- Psychological - Mental health problems, such as personality disorders and disorders of mood can be short or long-term.
- Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) - These vary in severity and affect people in different ways. Sufferers with ASD tend to show unusual behaviour and have difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
- Chronic pain - An incapacitating pain that lasts longer than six months.
- Chronic medical conditions - Includes a range of diseases and conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, arthritis, cardiovascular disease etc.
- Down’s Syndrome - A genetic disorder typically associated with mild to moderate intellectual disability.
- Restricted growth - Dwarfism is the most common condition associated with short stature.
- Cerebral Palsy - Refers to a number of neurological conditions that affect a person's movement and coordination.
It is important to note that in order to be classed as a disability, the issue must be permanent and ongoing, and must have been present for 12 months or more.
A disability can include a wide range of health problems, ailments, illnesses or conditions. Below is a list of some of the most common disabilities and what they entail:
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB), there are two million people in the UK living with sight loss. Currently one in five people aged 75 and over in the UK have some form of sight loss, while there are over 25,000 children who are either partially or completely blind. Many of these youngsters have a combination of disabilities. Common causes of sight loss include retinal detachment, cataracts, diabetes, Glaucoma and macular degeneration.
It is estimated that one in six people (about 10 million) in the UK have some degree of hearing loss or impairment - which can be detected soon after birth or develop with age. Hearing loss is the result of sound signals not reaching the brain, and falls into two categories - sensorineural hearing loss (inner ear damage) or conductive hearing loss (caused by blockages such as earwax, ear infection or a perforated eardrum). Treatments include hearing aids, cochlear implants and the learning of sign language.
Chronic medical conditions
Diabetes is a long-term condition that causes a person's blood sugar levels to become too high. In some cases it develops at birth (Type 1 diabetes) but it can also affect people later in life (Type 2 diabetes). This condition is the leading cause of problems such as kidney failure and lower limb amputations, and statistics released in 2010 showed around 3.1 million people aged 16 and over in the UK are affected. This figure is expected to rise to 4.6 million by 2030.
Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints and there are around 200 different types. It can be a mild inconvenience, or can make getting around very difficult (or impossible). Although the condition is commonly associated with older people, anyone can be affected at any age, and some people may start experiencing joint problems in their youth. There are many ways of helping to manage arthritis and minimise its impact on everyday life.
Spinal cord disabilities
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
MS is a progressive disease that attacks the central nervous system, blocking the transmission of motor signals to the limbs. Symptoms may include muscle weakness and spasms, problems with speech, vision, and emotional instability. This can result in depression or mood swings. There is no cure for MS, however it is possible to help reduce the frequency and severity of relapses.
Spina Bifida is caused by a birth defect - when the spinal column does not close properly. It ranges from mild to severe, with the worst symptoms including muscle weakness, paralysis or loss of sensation below the spine, and loss of bowel and bladder control.
Autistic spectrum disabilities
Down’s Syndrome is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome, and is present in the womb. Symptoms include impaired cognitive ability and physical growth, a specific set of facial features and delayed development. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Asperger's is very closely linked to autism, and it can be difficult to diagnose. However, it is thought Asperger’s may be hereditary and the symptoms tend to be less severe and less frequent. Asperger’s is at the milder end of the autistic spectrum.
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)
In 1995 the Disability Discrimination Act was passed, making it unlawful for employers to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their disability. It also protects against harassment and victimisation.
Around a third of people with a disability experience difficulties related to their impairment in accessing public, commercial and leisure goods and services, so this act also ensures public bodies provide the necessary requirements for people with disabilities. The Act also ensures the government can set minimum standards so public transport can be accessed easily.
In 2010, The Equality Act was introduced, which is a new discrimination law that strengthens the legislation of the DDA.
There is also an Employers’ Forum on Disability, which is an organisation made up of UK business that measure performance on disability, awarding prizes for the best companies.
What can cause a disability?
Different disabilities have different causes. Some are caused by accidents, which can result in a spinal injury, amputation, or a brain injury. Others may be present in the womb, such as Down’s Syndrome, while many are caused by complications during birth, such as an interruption of the oxygen supply to the brain. Premature birth may also cause some disabilities.
During pregnancy, smoking, drinking and drug taking can cause a disability to develop either in the womb or later in the child’s life.
In a number of cases, genetics and genetic abnormalities are the main reasons why disabilities develop, while illnesses like cancer, obesity and heart attacks can also be a trigger. Lifestyle choices can also play a huge part. Individuals who are obese have an increased likelihood of developing long-term disabilities such as diabetes and chronic pain.
When is the right time to seek help?
Whether the disability develops early or later in life, there are many avenues of support available for both the individual and their family.
For those who are unable to work, there are several kinds of benefits available, as well as people on hand to help claim for them. The NHS provide a range of support services to help manage disabilities. For those studying, universities can offer student services to help the individual get the right support throughout their studies, whether that be accommodation or help with learning.
For those caring for someone with a disability, there is also support available. Particularly in the case of severe disabilities, it is important that the carer is able to have a break. There are carer’s centres all over the country where carers can go to meet other carers and take some time out. There are also many charities, which provide support for carers as well as people with disabilities.
Treatment for disability
Many disabilities cannot be cured, however using a variety of treatments they can be managed to help try and reduce the impact the disability has on the individual’s day-to-day life.
Alternative therapies are often used, as well as traditional medicine. Counselling can provide support to people with disabilities, as well as their partners, family and carers.
Counselling for disabilities
Living with a disability for many is a constant struggle, both mentally and physically. This can be the same for those who live with a disabled person, as they too may be finding it difficult to not only come to terms with the condition, but adapting to a lifestyle that involves a number of challenges.
People who suddenly find themselves disabled as a result of an accident or a serious health condition may find counselling particularly beneficial. Furthermore, people with disabilities tend to experience low social support and financial hardship, which can be linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Counselling is useful for helping to address these issues in addition to helping people cope better with their disability.
The aim of counselling is ultimately to provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to discuss their concerns and fears with a trusted professional who will help them to explore ways of making these more manageable.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are currently no laws in place stipulating what training and qualifications a counsellor must have in order to treat someone with a disability. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have developed a set of guidelines that provide advice about the recommended treatments, including the following:
- If your physical health problem means that you are unable to have psychological treatment face to face, you may be offered an antidepressant, or psychological treatment by phone.
- If you have a learning disability or other problem that may affect your understanding, you should be offered the same treatments as other people with depression and a physical health problem. The treatment may be adapted to suit your needs.
- If you have both depression and anxiety, you will be treated first for the one that causes you the most problems. Because treatments for anxiety and depression are similar, treatment for one condition can often help the other.
Read the full NICE guidelines:
Counsellors treating people with a disability may have to adjust the way they work depending on the disability. Therefore, it may be worth seeking a professional who has had previous experience in working with disabled clients.
What our experts say
- Stigma and physical disability
Libby Webber, Dip H.E (Counselling), B.A (Hons), MNCS (Accred.)10th April, 2015
- The Annual Disability lecture - Cambridge University, 2014
Rebecca Sherwood5th June, 2014
- A change of life
Libby Webber, Dip H.E (Counselling), B.A (Hons), MNCS (Accred.)17th March, 2012
- Sex and Disability: The Forgotten Activity of Daily Living
Melani Halacre3rd January, 2012
- Illness and Disability
Heather Mallery AdvDip MBACP, CT Dip MPCH11th January, 2009
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