1. What is a disability?

The World Health Organisation (2020) recognises the term ‘disability’ as an umbrella term for known and unknown impairments, referring to the limitation in activity, as well as the inability to participate as a result of physical, social and psychological restrictions.


The term, although just one, should be understood from three different perspectives. ‘Impairment’ refers to the problem that may exist in the functioning of the physical body or psychological mind, or structure thereof. ‘Limitation in activity’ refers to the challenges that the person can encounter while trying to execute a task and, lastly, the restriction in participation may refer to the problem experienced by an individual in involvement in a life situation. Disability is thus a complex phenomenon reflecting interactions between features of a person’s body and mind, with features of the society in which they may live.


The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) derives its definition of a disability from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and it is explained as a concept that comes into being when individuals with impairments interact with attitudinal and environmental barriers resulting in the elimination of opportunities to participate actively in everyday life in an equal sense with others.


2. How do we know that there is a disability?

The ability to identify any of the three indicators mentioned below allows us to identify an individual who may live with a disability and enables us to establish ways in which the individual can be assisted.

  • There must be an impairment.
  • The impairment must be long-term or recurring.
  • The impairment must be consistently limiting.


3. What are the different types of impairments?


  • Physical or Mobility Impairments

A physical disability may be congenital or the result of an accident or age or the inability of the brain to coordinate functioning with the rest of the body. Some common injuries that may cause physical or mobility impairments are traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries. As a result, upper body impairments, lower body impairments or manual dexterity impairments may occur.

  • Hearing Impairments

Hearing impairments may be evident from birth or occur as a result of biological changes. There are persons who are completely deaf, and those that are hard of hearing or partially deaf. Persons identifying with the complete loss of hearing may use sign language and persons identifying with partial loss of hearing may make use of hearing aids specially designed to suit their hearing needs, as degrees of hearing impairment may differ.

  • Visual Impairments

Visual impairments may be a result of birth defects, biological changes or injuries and accidents that may occur later in life. They are minor to serious to severe, and, ultimately, complete loss of sight. Some common visual impairments include scratched cornea, scratches on the sclera, diabetes-related eye conditions, dry eyes and corneal graft.

  • Neuro-Cognitive/Developmental Impairments

Neuro-Cognitive/Developmental impairments may be evident as learning impairments, including speech impairments. Persons with these impairments may suffer from learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyscalculia. Persons suffering from speech impairments such as slurred speech or stuttering may have neuro-cognitive/developmental impairments as well.

  • Psychiatric/Psychological Impairments

Psychiatric/Psychological impairments may be understood as mental health impairments affecting behaviour, feeling and mood. These impairments may be inherent or may develop as a result of challenges in bio-psychological changes, as well as external changes in the environment that may result from emotional or psychological traumas. Some known psychiatric/psychological impairments include stress, anxiety or mood and personality disorders. Pharma-psychological treatments are often used for these impairments.

  • Chronic/Severe Medical Conditions

Chronic or severe medical conditions refer to conditions that may be invisible to the eye and may cause so much pain that they affect the day-to-day functioning of the individual diagnosed with it. They may be long-term or short-term. These may include arthritis, diabetes, or even lupus. Persons identifying with these conditions may try to manage their conditions with constant chronic medication.


4. Do’s and Don’ts


  • Refer to them as people with disabilities. The disability community.
  • Speak to them directly about what they may need. They know best and impairment is not a sign of ignorance.
  • Offer assistance but politely and patiently wait for it to be accepted.


  • Refer to them as the disabled or the handicapped.
  • Speak about them behind their back and assume that they do not have the mental capacity to understand what they may need.
  • Ask personal questions about a person's disability, unless they voluntarily share the information.



5. Inspirations

Nick Vujicic quotes - life-changing inspirational speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx-rowhw7ks

Nick Vujicic best life-changing inspirational video of all time! 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lrxtvotncu


6. Solution or way forward

Students with disabilities may contact the Disability Rights Unit of the NWU. Students can be assisted in different ways that may include offering concessions after an application has been submitted. 

Potchefstroom Campus: 

Penelope Motshwene

Telephone: 018 299 4431 / Email: Penelope.Motshwene@nwu.ac.za   

Building: F18 (G09)


Mahikeng Campus: 

Vida Mutlaneng

Telephone: 018 389 2365 / Email: vida.mutlaneng@nwu.ac.za

Building: A3 (140)


Vanderbijlpark Campus: 

Dr Sydney Vos

Telephone: 016 910 3194 / Email: Sydney.Vos@nwu.ac.za

Building: Building 13, Split-level 3, office 331




World Health Organisation (WHO). (2020). Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/health-topics/disability#tab=tab_1


Compiled by Penny Motshwene (Social Worker at Student Counselling and Development, Potchefstroom Campus)

July 2020