Disabilities

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Laura Duester
Last updated 11th September 2023 | Next update due 10th September 2026

In the UK, there are over 14.1 million people with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness. Here, we will explore the types of disabilities, and the options available to help people cope with and better manage their condition, such as disability counselling.

What is a disability?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes ‘disability’ as a term that refers to a huge spectrum of impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. Around 15% of the world’s population (over 1 billion people) currently experience disability at some point during their life according to WHO, with numbers increasing due to ageing populations and non-communicable diseases.

Disability is the result of an interaction between an individual with a health condition (e.g. depression, anxiety, cerebral palsy), personal and environmental factors (e.g. public transport that is inaccessible, negative attitudes or perceptions from themselves or others), and limited social support. The environment can have a huge impact on the experience and extent of disability, as an inaccessible environment creates barriers that stop individuals from accessing parts of society that others can.

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 action, while a participation restriction causes difficulties when undertaking day-to-day tasks.

An impairment doesn’t have to be a diagnosed medical condition, but it needs to have a substantial, long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities. For example, stress could lead to mental impairments such as difficulty concentrating, extreme tiredness, or sleep issues. An impairment may not stop you from doing something completely, but it may make things harder, for example, by causing pain or taking longer.

Counsellor Martin Campbell MBACP (Accred.), MNCS (Accred.) shares his story of retraining as a counsellor, following a successful previous career as an architect, after he had a stroke. In this video, he explains how personal therapy helped him come to terms with his disability and the loss of his old career.


Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act replaced the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in October 2010. The Act compiles a number of different discrimination laws into one. It enforces laws that protect disabled people from being treated unfairly and applies in many situations, including:

  • education
  • employment
  • access of facilities
  • goods
  • transport
  • services

Under the Equality Act 2010, you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on your ability to carry out daily activities. You will automatically meet the disability as soon as definition from the day you are diagnosed with cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS) or HIV.

If you are in Northern Ireland, please be aware that the Equality Act 2010 does not apply. If you would like to find out more information on the Equality Act, take a look at this article on the Disability Rights UK website.


When is the right time to seek help?

Whether a disability develops early or later in life, there are many avenues of support available, both for the individual and the 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 also provides a range of support services to help manage disabilities. For those studying, universities often offer a student services team. This can help the individual get the right support throughout their studies, whether that is accommodation help or learning support.

There is also support available for those caring for someone with a disability. Particularly in the case of severe disabilities, it is important that the carer is able to have a break. There are centres all over the country, where carers can go to meet other carers and take some time out. Many charities provide support for carers, as well as people with disabilities.

Find a therapist offering disability support

Disability counselling

There are a number of avenues that you can explore to help manage your situation. Disability counselling can provide support to people with disabilities, as well as their partners, family and carers.

Living with a disability can be a long journey, both mentally and physically. It can be just as tough for those who live with or care for a disabled person. You may find it difficult to come to terms with your condition, as well as adapting to a lifestyle that involves new challenges.

Disabilities can often lead to low social support and financial hardship. These experiences can then be linked to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Counselling can help to address these issues, as well as help you cope better with the disability and any adaptations needed. The aim of disability counselling is to provide a safe and supportive space for you to discuss your feelings, worries and fears. A trusted professional will be there to help you explore ways of making these more manageable.


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. A disability can be present at birth or may occur later in life as the result of an accident or health problem, depending on the nature of the condition.

Physical

A physical disability can either temporarily or permanently affect an individual’s mobility and/or physical capacity. Such disabilities include muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, ME, spina bifida, a spinal cord or brain injury or cerebral palsy.

Sensory

A sensory disability can affect one or more of an individual’s senses, such as touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing and spatial awareness. Hearing loss, blindness and autism all fall under the ‘sensory disability’ category.

Mental health

Disabilities that affect an individual’s mental health include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. These fall under the Equality Act 2010 as they can affect the way a person thinks and behaves and can restrict their ability to carry out daily tasks.

Learn more about mental health and disabilities.

Learning

A learning disability is a disorder of an individual’s central nervous system, which affects their learning process. People with a learning disability may need support to develop new skills and understand complicated information. But, it doesn’t mean that the individual is incapable of learning, it just means they learn in a different way.

Chronic

The Equality Act 2010 states that for a person to meet the definition of ‘disability', the impairment will have a substantial and long-term effect on the person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks. For the purpose of deciding whether a person is disabled, a long-term effect is one that has lasted at least 12 months or is expected to last at least 12 months.


What should I be looking for in a counsellor?

When you’re looking for a counsellor, you may want to find out if they have experience or training in working with disabled people, carers and/or specific types of disabilities. Some therapists specialise in working with certain health conditions and have specialist skills in these areas. 

Therapists should also be able to explain about the type of counselling they offer. Some therapies, such as CBT, are more structured and will typically focus on managing and overcoming disability-related symptoms. Other therapies, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, are more exploratory and will help you consider and process any feelings about your disability or caring responsibilities. Which therapy is right for you will depend on your hopes and goals for counselling.

The NHS also provides further information on living with a disability. This includes what care and support are available, as well as information about working with a disability and caring for older relatives.


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