Join the fight to end violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability by engaging with the Disability Royal Commission.

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Disability Terms

Disability Royal Commission hearings sometimes use terms that most Australians aren’t very familiar with. We’re keeping a list of these and trying to explain them in plain language. Please feel free to email us at comms@pwd.org.au if you have suggestions for words that should be included.


AAC: This stands for augmentative and alternative communication. It covers a lot of different ways a person with disability might communicate. For example: communicating through mime and gestures, choosing cards with pictures that show what you want to say, or technology that lets you choose letters or words by tracking your eye movement.

Cognitive disability: This is a broad umbrella term for disability related to how your brain works, which includes people with acquired brain injury or ABI, people with dementia, people with intellectual disability or learning disability, people on the autism spectrum and others. People with cognitive disability may need support with communication, planning, remembering things, or looking after themselves. They often face barriers to accessing information and social inclusion.

Impairment: An impairment is a medical condition where a person’s body or mind doesn’t work the way people expect it to, like not being able to walk or having seizures. Some people use the words ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’ to mean the same thing. This is the medical model of disability.

PWDA, and other disability rights organisations, use the social model of disability.

Neurodiversity or neurodivergence: A person is neurodivergent if the way their mind works is different from how most people expect it to – for example, because of autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other things. Neurodiversity is a word to describe how different kinds of minds and ways of thinking are part of human diversity, just like different kinds of bodies and cultures. It is also the name of the movement against using the medical model to talk about neurodivergence.

Psychosocial disability: This means a person’s disability is related to their long-term mental health. The word psychosocial comes from the words “psychology” and “social”, to show that someone’s disability comes from the combination of what’s going on inside their head and how other people treat them. There is no hard line between short-term mental illness and psychosocial disability. Find out more about psychosocial disability from reimagine.

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