What is disability?
A person with disability may be unable to perform certain functions as well as most other people. The disability may be physical; it may involve senses, including seeing or hearing; it may involve finding it difficult or impossible to think clearly; or it may involve mental health. Many people with a disability have full abilities in other areas.
Disability is common — about 1 in 50 children has a disability. There are many types of disability, including disabilities that children are born with, disabilities that develop after birth, and disabilities that are caused by injury.
Children with disability may have special needs and require early intervention and as much support as possible.
Common disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and intellectual and physical disabilities create challenges with thinking, behaviour and skill development.
Disability in childhood can have a lifelong impact on a person’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as their social situation. Children with disability may have special needs, particularly regarding health and education, and may need to negotiate significant social and environmental barriers in order to fully participate in everyday life.
A congenital disorder is a condition that is present from birth. It can be inherited or caused by environmental factors. Common congenital disorders include:
- intellectual disability — where a child takes longer to learn than others and may experience delays in their development
- Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) — a common genetic condition that causes intellectual disability
- cerebral palsy — a physical disability that makes it hard for a child to control how their body moves
- Fragile X syndrome — an inherited condition that causes intellectual disability and learning and behaviour problems
Find out more here about congenital disorders.
Developed after birth
Some disabilities develop after birth. These include hearing problems, heart conditions, and blood, metabolism and hormone disorders. Detecting these problems soon after birth can prevent them from becoming more serious physical, intellectual, visual or hearing disabilities.
Autism is a disability that is now known by the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’.
Children aren’t usually diagnosed with autism until after they have reached 2 years of age. Although its causes are not fully understood, autism has been linked to genetic factors.
Caused by injury
Physical, mental and behavioural disabilities can occur when a trauma or injury (such as falling from a height) affects the brain. Other causes of acquired brain injury include loss of oxygen (for example, due to asthma or after a near- drowning), infection (such as meningitis) and stroke.
Severe physical injuries, such as spinal cord injury or losing an arm or leg in an accident, can cause physical disability.
Developmental delay or disability?
Disabilities are different from developmental delays. A child with a developmental delay is developing skills more slowly than most other children. This does not mean they have disability.
Not all children develop at the same rate, so some children naturally take longer to develop than others. Developmental delays can be short or long-term and can happen in any area of your child’s development.
In contrast, disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, some speech disorders, hearing impairment and intellectual disability will last for your child’s whole life. They will have permanent delays in the area of their disability.
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Last reviewed: June 2021