When is a Disability Not a Disability?

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When is a disability a barrier?

When is a barrier a disability?

Trying to understand the nuance between these two questions is something I've been grappling with for a while now.

It's probably a common perception that 'disabilities' create barriers for people from enjoying a full life. That being 'disabled' restricts people in ways the majority of people are not.


The Oxford dictionary defines 'disability' as:

"A physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities."


"A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law."


It's completely understandable that we might say for instance that having no legs and being restricted to using a wheelchair is a disability.  But is that always the case? The fact someone cannot walk does not mean they cannot be mobile... Consider Kurt Fearnley - is this guy disabled or is he a driven and successful athlete, ambassador, advocate and role model? Just how limited is he?

If the same person who is wheelchair bound is unable to enter a building due to a lack of ramp or other accessible entrance, is it their disability that is limiting their movements or activities or the barrier imposed by the owner/builder/designer of the building?

Let's go for another definition:


A developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour.
— Oxford Dictionary

In simple terms, one could readily characterise Autism as being a condition that creates challenges for people in their daily lives, primarily through social interaction and sensory sensitivities. Though for many people with Autism these challenges would not limit their movements, senses or activities.

Equally, when you start to understand the cognitive abilities of so many people with Aspergers and Autism, the often unique, creative and out of the box thinking they have, you realise that their alternative ways of thinking and seeing things is not even close to being a 'disadvantage' or 'handicap'. 

It's this diversity of thought and perspective that is an advantage, a benefit.  Something of value and worth.

I recognise that some people may argue that being on the Autism spectrum impacts their senses - but this is not a limitation of their senses, but rather, typically a heightening of those senses and at times they can be challenged to adequately filter and process the signals those senses are receiving.

Do these difficulties limit their activities? For some who are more particularly susceptible to sensory sensitivities, it may limit their activities to some extent.  Though for a very large portion of people with Aspergers or Autism, they are either able to manage these 'challenges' or have effective coping mechanisms.

But let's explore an example of the conundrum that I've been pondering.

Let's say we have someone, we'll call them Bill who has Aspergers. Bill is smart, educated and talented.  Bill also is hypersensitive to certain forms of artificial lighting.  Bill has had trouble holding down a number of jobs due to heightened levels of anxiety, headaches, exhaustion and a lack of focus.

The problem - the artificial lighting in the office.

So - is this Bill demonstrating that he has a 'disability' due to the way his sensory sensitivity to lighting is 'limiting' his activities ie work? Or is this Bill experiencing a barrier to access an activity much as the way our very able and mobile wheelchair user might be restricted from entering a building?

If some form of accommodation can be created for Bill that alleviated the effects of his sensitivity to lighting would Bill be able to work more effectively without the personal impacts?

Would we have just 'cured' his disability? 

If a ramp or other accessible access were to be provided to our wheelchair user, have we 'cured' their disability or merely removed an environmental barrier that was limiting their activities?

How often are these barriers that prevent access, enjoyment, performance or participation for those with a 'disability' of our own creation?

Either through design, execution or attitude, knowingly or unknowingly?

How often might we, society, essentially create a 'disability' or a limitation for someone through the conscious or unconscious decisions and choices we make that places a barrier to their movement, senses or activities?

Are the limitations those of the individual or the environment that everyone else creates for them?

And to be honest, the elephant in the room for me is the definition "...that limits..." - by what standard and who's assessing this? But I think that's for another time.

So the next time you're dealing with someone with a 'disability'. Ask yourself, is their 'disability' a barrier, or are they only limited by a barrier that you have the ability to remove for them?


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