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Disability is the umbrella term for any or all of: an impairment of body structure or function, a limitation in activities, or a restriction in participation.

Disability is a multi-dimensional and complex concept and is conceived as a dynamic interaction between health conditions and environmental and personal factors (WHO 2001:6).



World Health Organization (WHO) 2001. ICF: International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneva: WHO

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2003. ICF Australian User Guide Version 1.0. Canberra: AIHW


Many different 'definitions' of disability are used in Australia, both in administrative data collections and in Acts of Parliament. The consistent identification of disability in national data collections has been recommended in a number of reports, for instance to enable:

  • the monitoring of access to generic services by people with disability
  • the collection of more consistent data on disability support and related services, including data on service use by different groups
  • population data and service data to be related, thereby improving the nation's analytical capacity in relation to the need for and supply of services
  • improved understanding of the relationship between disability, health conditions and other health outcomes.

Defining disability makes it possible to determine the number of people who are accessing services, both disability specific and generic, and also those with a disability in the general population with unmet need. Better definition of disability will aid better targeting of resources to those in need.

Disability arises from the interaction between health conditions and environmental and personal factors. A health condition may be a disease (acute or chronic), disorder, injury or trauma. Environmental factors make up the physical, social and attitudinal environment in which people live and conduct their lives. Personal factors relate to the individual, such as age, sex and Indigenous status.

The concept 'Disability' can be described using a combination of related metadata items as building blocks.

The metadata items selected may vary depending on the definition of disability used. For example, in hospital rehabilitation, the focus may be on the impairment and activity dimensions and in community-based care the focus may be primarily on participation. Some applications may require a broad scope for inclusion (e.g. discrimination legislation). Data collections relating to services will select combinations of the data elements, which best reflect the eligibility criteria for the service.

This glossary item is based on the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). The ICF was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 2001 as a reference member of the WHO Family of International Classifications and of the Australian Family of Health and Related Classifications (endorsed by the National Health Information Management Group in 2002).

The ICF provides a framework for the description of human functioning and disability. The components of ICF are defined in relation to a health condition. A health condition is an ‘umbrella term for disease (acute or chronic), disorder, injury or trauma’ (WHO 2001). A health condition may be recorded, for example, as Episode of care principal diagnosis, code (ICD-10-AM 3rd Edn) ANN{.N[N]} and Episode of care additional diagnosis, code (ICD-10-AM 3rd Edn) ANN{.N[N]}.


Further information on the ICF can be found in the ICF itself and the ICF Australian User Guide (AIHW 2003) and the following websites
• WHO ICF website
• Australian Collaborating Centre ICF website

This content Based on Australian Institute of Health and Welfare material. Attribution provided as required under the AIHW CC-BY licence.

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