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What are the different types of disabilities?

According to the charity Scope, there are over 14 million disabled people in the UK. While 4.4 million of these people are in work, there’s almost 10 million disabled people who are not.

If a person has a disability, this means that they suffer with a condition of the mind or body that makes it difficult for them to communicate effectively with others or complete day-to-day activities in the same way as others. This means that their life is in some way limited.

There are four main categories that define disabilities: 

1. Behavioural or emotional.

2. Sensory impaired disorders.

3. Physical.

4. Developmental.

Man with physical disability

What is a behavioural or emotional disability?

A behavioural disorder can be disruptive, and if it is not diagnosed in childhood, it can impact a person’s ability to hold down a job and maintain relationships. Behavioural disorders include anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, disruptive or impulsive behaviours, and pervasive development disorders. Emotional disabilities are a type of behavioural disability, but that’s because our emotions often influence our actions.

An emotional disability often relates to a disability that prevents a person’s ability to maintain or build interpersonal relationships with others. They can also struggle to control their emotions and often feel unhappy in their life. This means they often act inappropriately in normal circumstances, or suffer with feelings of fear or anxiety, especially in relation to personal matters.

What is a sensory impaired disorder?

This type of disability is quite self-explanatory as it relates to the senses: hearing, smell, taste, touch and sight. If a person has a sensory disability, this means that the senses are no longer at the usual levels that others experience. For example, if you suffer with a vision impairment, this could mean that you need to wear glasses to improve your sight or vision abilities. However, there are more serious vision impairments, as some people are unable to see at all as they are blind.

If you have hearing difficulties or are deaf, you may have a hearing aid, and this is classed as having a hearing impairment. Many older adults also report sensory issues in relation to their taste and touch. Taste issues can impact their eating habits while issues with touch can mean that they struggle to fasten buttons, for example.

What is a physical disability?

A physical disability is a condition that impacts a person’s physical abilities, stamina, mobility and their ability to move and use their hands. There are many obvious physical disabilities, but even a condition such as epilepsy is a physical disability, even though you may not be able to tell visually, or by speaking to the person. That’s because a seizure incapacitates the person who has this condition and can place limitations on a person’s life.

Other physical disabilities include:

  • Brain injuries.
  • Respiratory disorders.
  • Hearing impairments.
  • Spinal cord injuries.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Visual impairments.

The above are just some examples, as there are many, many more types of physical disabilities.

Woman and carer with learning disability

What is a developmental disability? 

A developmental disability refers to conditions that occur during childhood years, as they affect a person’s ability to develop in the same way as others. They impact a person’s ability to learn, impact their language, or initiate behavioural difficulties within a person. These types of conditions are said to develop through childhood, up to the age of 22 years old.

There are said to be five developmental disabilities, which include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Cerebral palsy.
  • Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • Intellectual disability.
  • Learning disabilities.

Developmental disabilities are often described as being severe and chronic because of the way they limit a person’s life. They can impact self-care, learning, mobility, self-direction, economic self-sufficiency, receptive and expressive language, and independent living.

Visible versus invisible

When we refer to a ‘visible’ disability, we are referring to a disability that presents itself in a physical form, to the naked eye. That means it’s often obvious that a person has a physical disability, but some conditions are not so obvious to spot.

You may have heard some disabilities being described to as ‘invisible’ and this term refers to the conditions that are not so obvious. This means that when you look at or communicate with the person, you may assume they are fit and well as they don’t appear to have a disability.

That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between the two. People who have an invisible disability often claim that they feel others do not always believe they are disabled because their disability isn’t easily noticeable.

Amputation is a visible disability

Visible disabilities

A visible disability is a disability that is obvious to the naked eye and easily noticed by others when they look at or talk to the person with the disability. For example, a person may not be able to physically move in the same way as others, may have a missing limb or facial feature, or have an obvious tremor or shake, all of which are noticeable to others.

Sometimes, a visible disability is easier to explain or accept, because there is evidence of the disability. This shouldn’t be the case, as many people who have invisible disabilities often feel discriminated against and feel that others do not believe they have a disability.

Examples of common visible disabilities include:

  • Down Syndrome – This is a congenital condition. There are often characteristics that indicate a person has this condition, such as a larger tongue, a flattened skull, and folds to the inner corners of the eyes. They are also often shorter in height and often have limited social skills and intellectual abilities.
  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – This is caused when the mother of a child drinks throughout her pregnancy and this causes physical, behavioural and learning problems for their child.
  • Muscular Dystrophy – This is a genetic condition that causes muscle weakness. It’s a progressive condition that gets worse over time, and symptoms can become life-threatening when they affect the heart muscles or the muscles we use for breathing.
  • Cerebral Palsy – This is a motor disability due to the brain and muscles being affected which affects the person’s ability to maintain their posture, balance and movement. Cerebral indicates issues with part of the brain, and palsy refers to muscle weakness. This is the most common motor disability in childhood.
  • Multiple Sclerosis – This is a progressive condition that damages the spinal cord and also the nerve cells in the brain. There are many symptoms of this, such as numbness, speech issues, vision issues, tiredness and fatigue, and muscular coordination.
  • Autism – This is a condition which means the brain works differently to others. It’s not a condition that requires a cure, but people who have autism may need support. A person with autism may find it difficult to understand feelings, may find bright lights or noises overwhelming and stressful, or may think or do the same things repeatedly. They may also struggle with unfamiliar situations or social events as these could make them anxious or upset and they could also have difficulty interacting with others. Sometimes, it may take a person with autism a little longer to understand information too.
  • Amputations – This is when limbs have been surgically removed, such as an arm or a leg. This makes it difficult for a person to move or complete tasks in the same way as others. Limbs are removed for various reasons, such as an accident that results in trauma to a limb, a limb being deformed and causing issues, or as a result of a severe infection or gangrene.
  • Tourette Syndrome – This condition affects the nervous system. People with Tourette syndrome have tics which are sudden, uncontrolled twitches, sounds or movements which people do over and over again. People cannot prevent their tics, which could be something like shouting out certain words or blinking their eyes repeatedly.
  • Paralysis – This is when a person loses the ability to move some of their body or all of it. It can affect the face, hands, arms or legs (or both), or one side of the body. Sometimes the affected part of the body is numb, painful, tingly, floppy or stiff, which can make certain activities difficult.
  • Epilepsy – This is a common neurological disorder that impacts the brain. It causes people to have seizures; a seizure is a burst of electrical activity within the brain that temporarily disorientates the person. There are different types of seizures, but people can experience symptoms such as jerking or shaking (sometimes referred to as a ‘fit’), they may lose awareness, become stiff, experience strange sensations when it comes to smells, tastes or tingling in arms and legs, and some people collapse. It’s not uncommon for people to pass out and not have any memory of what has happened to them.
Woman with depression

Invisible disabilities

It’s believed that up to 70% of disabilities are hidden or invisible, so it’s more important than ever to increase our awareness and understanding when it comes to all disabilities.

Many people with invisible disabilities feel uncomfortable discussing their condition as they find it difficult to explain. Others may think they are acting strange or ‘off’, but it can be really difficult for them to deal with their disability, and the reactions or lack of understanding shown by others can make the whole situation even worse.

A person who has an invisible illness may think, hear, speak and interact with others differently. As we don’t always know a person has a disability, it can be challenging for someone to react appropriately. The best way is to improve our awareness and knowledge of invisible disabilities, and to adopt a sense of openness when it comes to all disabilities.

Many developmental and mental health issues are invisible illnesses, but there are a few other common conditions too.

Invisible disabilities include:

  • Bipolar This is a personality disorder that affects a person’s mood, and their personality can swing from one extreme to the other. It means that in one instance, they may be extremely happy and then the next moment they could be angry or depressed.
  • Anxiety This is a perfectly normal feeling, which can sometimes become overwhelming and constant, which causes a person to blow a situation out of proportion. Anxiety is often a different experience for everyone, but most people suffer with feelings of fear, worry and unease. If it becomes too overwhelming, a person may feel they have to avoid certain situations and their feelings can make it difficult for them to communicate with others or live their daily lives in the same way as other people.
  • Depression This is a mood disorder, and its most common symptom is when a person feels sad for most of the time. Many people report that they lack interest in life, and although sadness is a natural reaction, they struggle to come back from those feelings as they last much longer and feel much more severe. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness all stem from the sadness, and without support, a person can find themselves unable to care for themselves properly and can struggle to communicate or interact with others. This can result in the development of destructive behaviours, such as self-harm and suicide.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – This is a neurological condition that causes a person to be hyperactive and impulsive. Common symptoms include being distracted easily, being unable to pay attention for long periods of time, having a poor working memory, feeling the need to fidget, talk or move, and often acting without thinking. This means they are forgetful, sometimes come across as being impatient and rude, act on their impulse, and are unable to focus for long periods of time, which affects their life and work or education.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder This is often referred to as OCD. It’s a mental health condition, where a person develops compulsive behaviours and has regular obsessive thoughts. It can develop at any age, but symptoms regularly start around puberty, although they may not be obvious until the person reaches adulthood. This condition is distressing for sufferers and can impact their life because their fears take over their life and prevent them from doing the things they want to do. Their feelings cause anxiety, unease, and sometimes disgust as they don’t want to have these obsessive thoughts. They are unable to control their compulsions, which are often brought on by their negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Asperger’s – This is a developmental disorder which makes it difficult to relate to others socially. A person’s thinking and behaviour are quite rigid and repetitive, so they may find change difficult, which means life in general is difficult because we constantly have to evolve and deal with changes. Asperger’s is a type of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and people with this condition may not understand their emotions or how to show them as they use fewer facial expressions than others. Their speech can also be different as it can seem quite robotic or flat.
  • Diabetes – This is health condition that impacts how the body turns food into energy. There are two types of diabetes – type 1 is when the body’s immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin, so a person has to inject insulin for the rest of their lives. Type 2 is when the body does not produce enough insulin. This can sometimes be controlled by a person changing their diet, but sometimes tablets are required. People who have diabetes must have regular blood tests and are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy in the eyes, which can result in sight loss.
  • Chronic Illnesses – This is when a person has a long-lasting medical issue that causes distress or pain and impacts the way they live their life. It can mean a person is at risk of other health issues too. Some chronic conditions become a burden on the person in terms of their mortality and morbidity. There are 12 common chronic conditions, and two of those we’ve linked to already: depression and type 2 diabetes. The other 10 include heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, oral disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, arthritis, asthma, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Obsessive compulsive disorder

Common misconceptions and misunderstandings about disabilities

There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings relating to disabilities, so it’s important to address these now as these beliefs can be harmful.

Here are three of them:

1. People who are truly disabled need someone to take care of them.

Most people with a disability actually learn to take care of themselves, they just sometimes have to do things a little differently. Most actually prefer to be responsible for themselves!

2. People with disabilities are brave.

Being brave is not something that a person with a disability would often associate with themselves. They simply accept that their lifestyle is different, and they may have to lead their lives differently to others and face limitations.

3. People in wheelchairs are chronically ill and unable to walk.

We shouldn’t make assumptions when it comes to wheelchairs. They are a method of transportation and allow a person to move from one place to another. If a person is temporarily sick, they may be taken into a hospital in a wheelchair. Other people with medical conditions may be able to walk but have reduced mobility. Therefore, they may have a wheelchair as a safeguard.

Working with people with disabilities

If a business employs people with disabilities, they are likely to attract a more highly skilled workforce. This in turn boosts productivity, embraces and enhances team performance, and increases the pool of talent within the organisation. Others are likely to see the business as a fair and forward-thinking business.

A person with a disability can be very valuable to an organisation and it demonstrates a strong sense of inclusion and teamwork. Remember, we all have our own expert areas, skills and experiences that bring value to the workplace, and people with a disability are no different. They may have different perspectives based on their personal experiences and values, and therefore bring something fresh to the organisation, which is a great thing.

In order to attract and keep staff members with disabilities, it’s important that the workplace is accessible, and any necessary adaptations are made. It’s also important to educate staff, if necessary, especially when it comes to unconscious bias, and ensure that anything that could be unintentionally discriminative is carefully reviewed.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.



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