Our terminology

As a service working to remove barriers and promote equal access for disabled students, the language we use is rooted in our understanding of - and commitment to - the power of the social model of disability as a tool to effect change.


Social model of disability 

The social model of disability says people are not disabled by their individual differences, but by barriers in the world around them that cause them to be disadvantaged or excluded. 

These barriers can be:

  • to do with individuals' attitudes towards difference (e.g. a comment someone makes, or the language they use) 
  • physical - e.g how a building is designed, or how we are required to move around an environment
  • to do with how things are organised 'as standard' (e.g. teaching/assessment methods on a course not taking into account individual differences)

This model makes a clear distinction between 'impairment' and 'disability'.

  • An impairment can be defined as an individual's sensory, physical or cognitive difference (e.g. being blind, being dyslexic, autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, experiencing long-term mental health difficulties, having a long-term health condition).
  • Disability is the name for the social consequences of having an impairment. Someone who has an impairment is disabled by the way that society and environments are organised, and the specific barriers this way of organising things presents to them. 

Removing disabling barriers 

The social model is a helpful tool for change because it enables us to focus on practical approaches to remove barriers, rather than on individuals' personal information.

It recognises that:

  • People are disabled not by their impairment or difference, but by barriers and attitudes in society. To remove these barriers, society needs to change.
  • As members of society we are all responsible for removing barriers.
  • By taking (often simple) steps to remove these barriers we can lessen - or remove - the disability an individual with an impairment experiences.

'Disability', 'disabled people', 'impairments' and 'disabling barriers' are also the terms used in UK equality law. 

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection for disabled people against discrimination. It requires organisations like Universities to take proactive steps to remove the disabling barriers that someone with an impairment might encounter in a specific environment.

In many cases the steps we take are in the form of what the Equality Act terms 'reasonable adjustments' - alterations to the standard ways of doing things to ensure an individual disabled person or a group of disabled people can access/engage/participate in education as easily as non-disabled people. 

This is why as a service, we endeavour to use the term 'disabled students' when speaking collectively, and the phrasing 'student with…' when describing an individual (where it is appropriate to make reference to their impairment). 

We also recognise that:

  • whilst barriers in society are disabling, the nature and impact of an impairment itself often significantly influences a person's lived experience of disability
  • language norms and preferences when talking about disability vary significantly around the world - and from person to person

Please talk to us about disability-related matters in ways and using terms that work for you.

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