Your study level

We've preselected "All levels" for you, but you can change your study level at any time by choosing one of the options on this menu. Changing your study level will return you to the beginning of the module.

Defining disability
A young black boy with protective
                  headgear in a wheelchair is helped by a teacher

This module is concerned with the definitions of disability contained within UK legislation.


If children are disabled they have entitlements arising from their assessed needs. This section identifies 'what counts as disability' within the context of different acts of parliament.


You will have seen discussions around the use of the terms 'disabled' and 'disability'. There is ongoing debate about what is meant by these terms and how to use them in different contexts.

The Equality Act 2010

Section 6 of this Act states that a person is disabled if they have a disability which is defined as:

  • Physical or mental impairment.
  • Impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Where treatment or the provision of aids reduces the disabling effects of a condition that would otherwise meet the above criteria, then the impairment is still considered to have a 'substantial adverse effect'.

A child with a progressive degenerative condition meets the criteria if their condition is likely to result in a 'substantial and long term adverse effect' in the future, even if it does not currently do so.


In order to interpret this definition, it is necessary to understand the meanings of the terms used. This Act contains defined meanings for specific terms, but it should be borne in mind that these terms may have different meanings when used in other legislation.

A snapshot
Equality Act 2010

Further discussion of the application of these definitions is available in the Equality Act 2010 Guidance.


The implications of the Equality Act 2010 for schools and services are considered later
in this module.


Take a look at the Equality Act 2010 Guidance to find out more.


The impairment has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their abillity to carry out normal day-to-day activities.




Normal day-to-day activities







Defining disability: the Children Act 1989

So far in this section we have considered the applications of the Equality Act 2010, however the Children Act 1989 is also relevant as it contains a definition of disability that is applicable within other
related legislation.


Children with disabilities are children 'in need' as defined by section 17(10(c)) of the Children Act 1989 and are entitled to a range of support services depending on their circumstances.


The definition of disability given in Part III of this Act is more medically oriented than the Equality Act 2010.


Section 17(11) of the Children Act 1989 states:


'...a child is disabled if he is blind, deaf or dumb or suffers from mental disorder of any kind or is substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity or such other disability as may be prescribed.'

Previous acts
A young girl looks at herself
                  in a mirror held by a member of staff

The definition within the Children Act 1989 reflects the definition that is applicable to adults within section 29 of the National Assistance Act 1948, and is the definition that also applies to children under the two
following Acts:

When does the law define a child as disabled? (1)
A young boy walks using a frame

A record of the number of children with SEN is listed on the Register of Children with Disabilities. Through discussion with the school, SENCOs find out what records are kept by each school and what data the school has to provide to local or
national bodies.


Think of a child that you know (in or out of school) and consider whether or not they fall within the legislative definition of 'disabled'. Use the following questions to help you.

When does the law define a child as disabled? (2)

1. Does the child that you are thinking of have difficulty with any of the following 'normal day-to-day activities'?





Click here to read about the typical tasks or activities that a disabled child might have particular difficulty with.

2. Is the child's difficulty caused by an underlying impairment or condition?


3. Has the child's impairment or condition lasted, or is it likely to last, for more than 12 months?


4. Is the effect of the child's impairment or condition 'more than minor or trivial'?

If you have answered yes to questions one to four, then the child is probably disabled under the Equality Act 2010. If the child receives medical or other treatment to reduce or remove the effects of their condition, they may still be disabled. The test is whether the effects would recur if they were to stop their treatment." (the user has just been asked to think about a child, not a specific child called Tom.


Source: The previous paragraph is abridged from: DfES implementing the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 in schools and early years settings 2006.