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This Disability Types and Description summary page is intended to be used as a guide, based on an impairment of functioning approach.


Each person’s experience of disability is unique and multi-dimensional. This summary is intended to be used as a guide, based on an impairment of functioning approach. Functioning refers to a person’s physical, psychological and social capacity to cope with the day-to-day activities they find meaningful and necessary – work, studies, leisure time and hobbies, self-care and care for others – in the environment in which they live. 

This summary of different disabilities is not exhaustive and does not aim to define disability but rather emphasises how disability can impact many aspects of a person’s life. A person’s functioning can be supported and their coping in their day-to-day lives improved, with appropriate supports and services.

The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) is responsible for determining who is eligible to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). To determine whether a person meets the disability or early intervention access requirements, evidence of disability or developmental delay for children younger than 6, must be provided. This includes information on what the person’s disability is, whether it is permanent and how it impacts their life.

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDs) are a group of disorders with onset in the developmental period (0-18 years). These disorders typically manifest early in development, often before the child starts school, and are characterized by developmental deficits that produce impairments of personal, social, academic, or occupational functioning.

There are many types of Neurodevelopmental disorders including Intellectual disability, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Communication disorders, Specific learning disorder and Motor disorders (DSM-5 American Psychiatric Association 2013).

 Intellectual disability

Intellectual disability is a lifelong condition that affects a person’s intellectual skills and their behaviour in different situations. It can include difficulties with reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, academic learning, judgement and learning from experience. Intellectual disabilities can range from mild to severe and may be present from birth or acquired later in life.

Global developmental delay is diagnosed when an individual does not meet expected developmental milestones in several areas of intellectual functioning. However, is unable to undergo systematic assessments of intellectual functioning (i.e. children who are too young to undergo testing).

 Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly known as ‘ASD’ impacts how people communicate, interact with others and make sense of the world. The term ‘spectrum’ emphasises that children and young people will experience autism differently. Autism is a developmental condition often diagnosed before children start school, however it can be diagnosed at any stage of life.

 Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder with an onset typically before 12 years of age. Symptoms include difficulties with attention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity, which are inconsistent with a person’s age or developmental level and interfere with a person’s family life or participation in their community. ADHD is the most common neurodevelopmental condition in children and adolescents. However, ADHD can be diagnosed for the first time in adulthood.

A person with ADHD may have one or more other neurodevelopmental, mental health, or medical conditions that make diagnosis and treatment more complex. Careful assessment of possible co-occurring or alternative conditions is required.

 Communication disorders

The Communication Disorders include Language Disorder, Speech Sound Disorder, Childhood Onset Fluency Disorder and Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder. Like other neurodevelopmental disorders, communication disorders begin early in life and may produce lifelong functional impairments.

 Specific learning disorder

Specific learning disorder, as the name implies, is diagnosed when there are specific deficits in an individual’s ability to perceive or process information efficiently and accurately. This neurodevelopmental disorder first manifests during the years of formal schooling and is characterized by persistent and significant difficulties with learning.

 Motor disorders

The neurodevelopmental motor disorders include developmental coordination disorder, stereotypic movement disorder, and tic disorders. The characteristics of these motor disorders interfere with social, academic, or other activities of daily living.

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Physical Disability

A physical disability is a physical condition that affects a person’s mobility, physical capacity, stamina, or dexterity. Examples of physical disability include Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Chronic Arthritis, Cerebral Palsy, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Spina Bifida, Loss of limbs and Spinal Cord Injury. A person with physical disability may have difficulties moving and coordinating parts of their body for everyday life. The difficulties and barriers a person may face will depend on the type of physical disability and other environmental factors.

Acquired brain injury

Acquired brain injury (ABI) refers to any damage to the brain that occurs after birth. Disabilities related to ABI are often complex and may cause limitations in many areas of life. Common causes of ABI include accidents, stroke, brain tumours, poisoning, lack of oxygen and degenerative neurological disease. ABI-related disability can affect cognitive, physical, emotional and independent functioning.

Neurological Disability

Neurological disability—also known as neurological disorder—describes damage to a person’s nervous system that affects their mental or bodily functions. As the brain, spinal cord, and complex nervous system can all be affected, the impact of neurological disability varies greatly between people, and can even change on different days and over the course of life.

Some conditions that are classed as neurological disabilities include Cerebral palsy, Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy and Alzheimers disease.

While neurological disabilities caused by trauma or stroke can improve over time, others are degenerative, meaning that they increasingly disrupt brain function as the condition progresses, such as Multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson’s disease.

Vision Impairment

A vision impairment is defined as a limitation of one or more functions of the eye or visual system. This can range from mild vision impairment to total blindness. It cannot be corrected to normal vision with prescriptive lenses or surgery. Some people have congenital vision impairment (present from birth), whereas others have a degenerative eye condition that can lead to blindness or one acquired through trauma (e.g. accident or brain injury).

A person with vision impairment may have some useful vision, referred to as functional or residual vision. However, the loss is severe enough to affect the ability to perform vocational, recreational and/or social tasks.

Hearing Impairment

Hearing impairments occur when there is a problem with one or more parts of the ears, the nerves coming from the ears, or the part of the brain that controls hearing. Hearing impairment, hearing loss, or deafness refers to the partial or total inability to hear speech and sounds. Impairments can range from mild to severe and can affect anyone at any age. Some types of hearing impairments are temporary and some are permanent. Hearing impairments that happen at birth are called ‘congenital’ hearing impairments whereas ‘acquired’ hearing impairments develop throughout the course of a lifetime.

Deafblind (dual sensory)

Deafblindness means a person has combined vision and hearing impairments. This has a significant impact on communication, socialisation, mobility and daily living. People with deafblindness are a very diverse group because of the varying degrees of their vision and hearing impairments, plus possible other disabilities.

Speech Language Impairment

A person with Speech Language impairment may not be able communicate in the same way as other people. They may have problems with their speech sounds or understanding and using language. Some people may also use a different mode of communication.

Children may be born with conditions or disabilities that impact on their speech, language and communication skills, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual Disability, Downs Syndrome, Hearing Impairment and Acquired Brain Injury or Speech Language Disorders may occur in isolation. These difficulties may present for a short or long time and can range from mild to severe.

Other people may experience speech language difficulties later in life. Speech Language disorders can develop in adults gradually, but they can also develop suddenly, such as in the case of stroke. Disorders can include the loss of ability to express or understand language, problems making certain sounds or words (for example, slurring) and changes to the rhythm or speed of speech. Disorders can also include problems with swallowing.

Psychosocial Disability

Psychosocial disability is a term used to describe a disability that may arise from a mental health issue. Not everyone who has a mental health condition will have a psychosocial disability, but for people who do, it can be severe, longstanding and impact on their recovery. People with a disability as a result of their mental health condition may qualify for the NDIS.

Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may be considered psychosocial disabilities.

Developmental delay

Developmental delay is a term used to describe a delay in a child’s development. When young children take longer than expected to develop physical, emotional, social, communication and thinking skills, it’s called developmental delay. It means that a child finds it much harder and needs lots of extra help to do everyday things such as dress themselves, talk or walk, compared to other children of the same age. 

From Saturday, 1 July 2023, children younger than six with a developmental delay (or younger than 9 with diagnosed disability) may be eligible for the NDIS under the early intervention requirements.  

Children younger than six who do not fully meet the definition of developmental delay and have developmental concerns will also be supported through the early childhood approach.

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Guide for use

Disability groups are a broad categorisation of disabilities in terms of underlying health condition, impairment, activity limitations, participation restrictions and environmental factors. The primary disability is the disability that most clearly expresses the experience of disability by a person. It can also be considered as the disability group causing the most difficulty to the person (overall difficulty in daily life, not just within the context of the support offered).

A person’s functioning or disability is conceived as a dynamic interaction between a person with a health condition(s) and environmental and personal factors (WHO 2001). Functioning and disability are both multidimensional concepts. Disability is the umbrella term for any or all of an impairment of body structure or function, a limitation in activities (the tasks a person does), or a restriction in participation (the involvement of a person in life situations). The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) recognises two main components of functioning and disability: a body component comprising classifications of Body Function and Body Structure; and an Activities and Participation component providing a complete set of domains for aspects of functioning from both an individual and societal perspective. Environmental factors represent an important new component of the ICF in recognition of their influence on functioning and disability. Personal factors are also recognised but are not classified.

The disability groupings are a broad description of similar experiences of disability and patterns of impairments, activity limitations, participation restrictions, support needs and related health conditions. ‘Disability group’ is not a diagnostic grouping, and there is not a one-to-one correspondence between a health condition and a disability group.

This data item should ideally reflect the views of both the person and the funded agency. If there is a difference, the funded agency’s assessment should be recorded. (If the primary disability group cannot easily be chosen, then define primary disability as the person’s disability to which the service caters.)

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Links to resources

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Contact information

For any enquiries, please contact National Disability Services, submit enquiry/feedback