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Defining disability
A young boy walks using a frame

There is debate about what is meant by the terms 'disabled' and 'disability', and how to use them, in different contexts.


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.

What does disability mean to you?
A young girl looks at herself
                  in a mirror held by a member of staff

What is your understanding of what constitutes a disability?


How would you identify and define characteristics in such a way that they could be applied to differentiate between 'disabled' and 'non-disabled' individuals?

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
opened book

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.

Is the child disabled? (1)

Think of a child you know well, in or out of school, and consider whether or not they would fall within the legislative definition of 'disabled'.


1. Does the child have difficulty with 'normal day-to-day activities'? You might want to consider issues relating (but not limited) to:

  • Mobility: getting to/from school, moving about the school and/or going on school visits.
  • Manual dexterity: holding a pen, pencil or book, using tools in design and technology, playing a musical instrument, throwing and catching a ball.
  • Physical co-ordination: washing or dressing, taking part in games and PE.
Is the child disabled? (2)
  • Ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects: carrying a full school bag or other fairly
    heavy items?
  • Continence: going to the toilet or controlling the need to go to the toilet.
  • Speech: communicating with others or understanding what others are saying; how they express themselves orally or in writing.
  • Hearing: hearing what people say in person or on a video, DVD, radio or tape recording.
  • Eyesight: ability to see clearly (with spectacles/contact lenses where necessary), including any visual presentations in the classroom.
  • Memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand: work in school including reading, writing, number work or understanding information.
  • Perception of the risk of physical danger: inability to recognise danger eg when jumping from a height, touching hot objects or crossing roads.
Is the child disabled? .... continued
A young black boy with protective
                  headgear in a wheelchair is helped by a teacher

2. Are any difficulties that the child has caused by an underlying impairment or condition?


3. Has any impairment or condition that the child has lasted, or is it likely to last, more than 12 months?


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


If you have answered yes to questions 1 to 4, then the child is probably disabled. If the child receives medical or other treatment to reduce or remove the effects of his or her condition, he or she is likely to still be regarded as disabled. The test is whether the effects would recur if the treatment
was stopped.

Definition of 'in need'

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


However, the definition of disability given in Part III of this Act is more medically oriented than that within 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."

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

Register of children with disabilities (1)
A young girl looks at herself
                  in a mirror held by a member of staff

In order to identify the extent and level of services needed to comply with their general duty towards children with disabilities, local authorities have to keep a register of disabled children. The register helps local authorities and other agencies to plan services for disabled children.


Whoever (health professional, education professional or social worker) is the first to identify that a child has a disability is required to discuss all available services with the parents. This should include discussion of the registration process.

Register of children with disabilities (2)
A young girl looks at herself
                  in a mirror held by a member of staff

Parents of disabled children are not required to register their children, and children don't have to be on the register to have access to services.

Because of this, local authorities cannot be sure of the number of disabled children who may require services. Without accurate records local authorities may find it difficult to target resources.


Register of children with disabilities

  • Is your school/setting aware of which disabled pupils are and are not on the local
    authority register?
  • If so, are any pupils considered disabled
    but not registered?