What is disability and who are the persons with disabilities?

The term “Persons with disabilities” is used to apply to all persons with any physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movement, senses or activities. It can also refer to those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participants in society on an equal basis with others. However this minimum list of persons who may claimprotection under the Convention does not exhaust the categories of the disabilities which fall within it nor intend to undermine the stand in the way of wider definitions of disabilities under national law ( such as persons with short term disabilities).

It is also important that persons with disabilities differs from society to society depending on the role that the person is assumed to take in his/ her community. The perception and reality of disability also depend on the technologies assistance and services as well as on cultural considerations.


In some parts of the world, there are deep and persistent negative stereotypes and prejudices against person with certain conditions and differences. These attitudes themselves also shape who is considered to be a person with a disability in each society as well as have contributed to a negative image of person with disabilities. The languages used to refer to persons with disabilities have played a significant role in the persistence of negative stereotypes. Clearly terms such as “crippled” or mentally retarded are derogative. Other terms such as wheel chair-bond or disabled persons emphasize the disability before the person.

The drafters of this Convention were clear that disability should be seen as the result of the interaction between a personal and his or her environment. Disability is not something that resides in the individual as the result of some impairment. This convention recognizes that disability is an evolving concept and that legislation may adapt to reflect positive changes within society.

Disability resides in the society NOT in the person.

  • A person in a wheelchair might have difficulties being gainfully employed not because of her condition but because there are environmental barriers such as inaccessible buses or staircase in the workplace which obstruct his or her access.
  • A child with an intellectual disability might have difficulty going to school due to the attitudes of teachers, school boards and possibly parents who are unable to adapt to students with different learning capabilities.
  • In a society where corrective lenses are available for someone with extreme myopia (nearsightedness) this person would NOT be considered to have a disability, however someone with the same condition in a society where corrective lenses were not available would be considered to have a disability, especially if the level of vision prevents the person from performing tasks expected of this person such as shepherding, sewing or farming.

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