Understanding Disability

The way people think and talk about disability has changed a lot over time. A very outdated way of thinking is responsible for a limited view of disability, which has had a lot of negative impact on the lives of people with disabilities.

So what is disability? This timeline shows you a brief history of disability theories and updates you on some current ideas.


Timeline - the pastTimeline - the future

Dark Times


Brief timeline illustration depicting the history of theories on disability from the Enlightenment Era in the 1800s to Social Activism starting in the 1970s. Further developments include the NSW Government’s My Choice Matters scheme established in 2012 and the NDIS launched in 2016. This image illustrates a glimpse into the Enlightenment Era. Two males wear tops hats and old fashioned black formal robes. One holds a candle and the other points a stick at a half naked body.

Enlightenment Era

Medical Model of Disability

People with disability were understood as lesser humans

The Start of Fairer Times


Disability Rights Movement. This image aims to symbolise the Disability Rights Movement. A female is seated in a wheel chair holding a placard that reads, “Disability Rights! We shall overcome. Behind her are the silhouettes of a group of people with diverse abilities.

Disability Rights Movement

Created major positive change across the world and paved the way for the Social Model of Disability. This movement still fights for equal rights for people with disability today.


The Disability Discrimination Act 1992

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) was an act passed by the Parliament of Australia in 1992. The DDA protects individuals across Australia from unfair treatment in many parts of public life. The Act makes disability discrimination unlawful and promotes equal rights, equal opportunity and equal access for people with disabilities.


My Choice Matters:
NSW Consumer Development Fund

Established by the NSW Government to help people with disability live life their way.


National Disability Insurance Scheme. A map of Australia with all the states and territories marked. In the centre of the map is the acronym NDIS illustrating the introduction of the scheme in Australia.

NDIS: The National Disability Insurance Scheme

A new disability support system for Australia, designed to give people with disability a greater choice and control over the support they receive, providing eligible individuals with funding based on their personal needs and lifelong goals and aspirations.


Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability is the current theory and encourages the community to become inclusive and remove barriers for people with disability. This image is a close portrait of a male from the Accept Difference television commercial. The male has an expression on his face that is positive and shows that he is happy to offer support if it is required.

This model sees disability as the relationship between a person’s medical condition and the restrictive environments that they find themselves in.This theory supports the idea that the environment is the issue that needs to be “fixed” rather than the person’s condition. It doesn’t reject the real need for support in managing conditions but shifts the way we think, so everyone adapts to make things fairer.

The Social Model of Disability is the result of over 30 years of activism by the Disability Rights Movement. This movement continues to advocate for equity for people with disability across the world.

This way of thinking has resulted in the community seeing disability as:

  • Barriers that stop people with different abilities from participating in society.
  • A community responsibility to create a society that strives to include everyone.


Medical Model of Disability

The Medical Model of Disability is an outdated theory that caused the community to see people with disability in a negative light. This image is taken from the Accept Difference television commercial and shows a close up portrait of a female shopper who looks downwards towards another female who is attending to her child’s challenging behaviour. The expression shown here appears judgemental.

This theory saw disability as something that needed to be “fixed” with medical intervention. This outdated way of thinking has caused community to see disability as:

  • a shortcoming, a negative life and a situation where only experts can help.

Removing Barriers

Now that you have a more up-to-date understanding of the history and theories relating to disability, why don’t you check out some of the practical Inclusive Action tips that have been suggested by families and Early Connections staff.

Let’s remove disability barriers!