Disability awareness recognises a person’s impairment as part of human diversity whilst also acknowledging their need for equitable support, even after social barriers have been removed, so they can enjoy their rights on an equitable basis (People With Disability Australia [PWDA], 2021). Increasing awareness around issues that people with disability face, works towards creating a society where they are valued and included by removing misconceptions, changing attitudes, and eliminating discrimination (PWDA, 2021).

Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal bases with others (United Nations, 2008). The Disability Discrimination Act’s broad definition of disability includes the following;

  • Physical disability – impacts mobility or dexterity
  • Intellectual disability – impacts ability to learn or process information
  • Mental illness – impacts thinking processes
  • Sensory disability – impacts the ability to hear or see
  • Neurocognitive – impacts acquisition, organisation, retention, and understanding of information
  • Learning disability – impacts acquisition, organisation
  • Physical disfigurement – impacts physical appearance
  • Immunological disability – impact due to the presence of organisms causing disease in the body

The Social Model of Disability shifts the focus from the individual and onto society to remove the barriers that it has imposed through oppression, marginalisation, discrimination, and stigma (Australian Federation of Disability Organisations [AFDO], 2023). It rejects the view of disability as an individual deficit, or a deviation from the ‘norm’ and shows that societal barriers are obstacles to a person’s equal participation, rather than their impairment (AFDO, 2023).

Language has an impact on the way people feel and are perceived. Often, people with a disability are described in discriminatory and demeaning ways impacting a person with a disability’s sense of self, how they navigate society and interact with other people. Using appropriate language is not politically correct, it is respectful.

People with disability are not one homogenous group and while this language guideline aims to assist SJWA staff and volunteers in identifying appropriate language it is important to remember that language preferences are deeply individual and what may be acceptable for one person with a disability, might not be acceptable for another. For example, people with disability have strong preferences for using either person-first language (people with a disability) or identity-first language (disabled people). Where possible, St John WA staff and volunteers should ask the person how they would like to be described (PWDA, 2021).

In all instances, avoid the use of ableist language. Ableism is the systemic exclusion and oppression of people with disability by people without disability and is often expressed and reinforced through language (PWDA, 2021). you can read more about ableist language here.

General Guidance:

  • Respect the preferences of the individual
  • Do not describe a person as 'being' their condition
  • Avoid descriptions that suggest pity such as "afflicted by" or "victim of"
  • If you slip up with your language, acknowledge your mistake and apologise

A list of commonly used phrases is detailed on the table below. Further information can be found here.

What not to sayWhat to say
Suffers from, victim of, afflicted by, crippled by, incapacitated by[Patient Name] has a chronic health issue
Confined to a wheelchair (the wheelchair liberates people who cannot walk), wheelchair-bound, wheelchair person[Patient Name] uses a wheelchair / mobility device
Crazy, insane, manic, mentally ill/ unstable, psycho(tic), psychopath(ic)[Patient Name] has a mental health condition / a psychosocial disability
[Patient name] is schizophrenic – describes the person as their illness [Patient Name] has schizophrenia
Intellectually challenged, mentally retarded/ disabled, simple/special, retarded [Patient Name] has a cognitive disability / intellectual disability
Mute, dumb [Patient Name] is non-verbal / communicates using visual supports / sign language etc.
Slow /slow learner, retarded, special needs[Patient Name] has a learning disability
[Patient Name] has an intellectual disability
Brain-damaged, brain-impaired[Patient Name] has an acquired brain injury
High functioning autism, profoundly autistic [Patient Name] has autism
person on the autism spectrum
autistic person (identity first language)
Dwarf / midget[Patient Name] has short stature
Able-bodied/ abled, healthy, normal, of sound body, wellPerson without disability, non-disabled person
Normal, of sound mind Neurotypical

Disability and Complex Behaviours

At times, a person with an intellectual or other developmental disability may have difficulty making themselves understood and / or understanding other people (Developmental Disability WA [DDWA], 2023). This may result in the person displaying complex behaviours, which are difficult for others to understand and support. These may include physical behaviours directed to other people (such as shouting or hitting) or property damage. Often, these behaviours indicate that a person is ill or in pain, or their needs are not being met.

SJWA staff and volunteers responding to cases such as this may have difficulty working out what is underlying a person’s behaviour (such as pain, sensory overload, or boredom) and to change what is causing the distress. The below considerations are not exhaustive, nor does it address all types of disability, but attempts to provide additional assistance for SJWA staff and volunteers responding to a person with a disability displaying complex behaviour.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that is neurological in origin and affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment (Autism Spectrum Australia [ASA], n.d; Western Australia Department of Health [WADOH], 2019). Every autistic person is different as are their specific challenges and needs which is why it is described as a spectrum.

A person with autism spectrum disorder may;

  • Panic if yelled at, and lash out if touched or physically restrained
  • Misinterpret verbal communication
  • Not be able to answer questions
  • Appear not to be listening or paying attention
  • Tend to interpret statements literally
  • Appear rude or say things that sound tactless (especially when anxious or confused)
  • Have difficulty making eye contact
  • Speak too loudly, too softly or with unusual intonation (ASA, n.d)

A person with autism spectrum disorder may experience what is commonly referred to as a meltdown in response to a stressor such as a change to routine or sensory overload. A meltdown might look like crying, physical aggression, pacing, thrashing about, running away, dropping to the floor, and rocking back and forth (ASA, n.d). If safe, allow the meltdown to pass.

Take the time to speak with the patient and family members or support workers to identify sensory sensitivities and calming strategies to better understand the patient’s needs.


  • Clearly state who you are
  • Be patient and do not rush (unless life threatening)
  • One person speaking at a time – keep language concise and direct
    • Provide clear, step by step instructions

If you have limited understanding of how a patient experiences their world from a sensory perspective, assume sensitivity and create a low-stimulus environment as much as possible. Minimise noise and consider the use of visual aids and distraction techniques.

Finally, if a person with autism spectrum disorder becomes fixated on an object or has the need to perform repetitive body movements, do not interrupt unless necessary or unsafe. This may be a way for the person to calm down and self-regulate sensory needs.

Intellectual disabilities are characterised by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour with an onset prior to 18 years old (DDWA, 2023). Adaptive behaviours relate to a person’s ability to perform everyday activities such as self-care, the ability to socialise and skills such as reading and writing (DDWA, 2023).

Common causes:

  • Down Syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Rett Syndrome
  • Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder
  • Premature birth

Cognitive disability is caused by an acquired brain injury and can impact a person’s memory, problem solving skills and ability to regulate emotions.

A person with a cognitive disability may experience;

  • Attention and concentration difficulties
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor planning and inability to consider future implications
  • Difficulty understanding the points of view of others
  • Impaired social communication skills (Department of Communities, 2023)

Several factors can influence the extent of the cognitive impairment such as type of injury sustained, part of the brain impacted and a person’s prior level of functioning and developmental stage (Department of Communities, 2023).

Common causes:

  • Trauma (MVA, falls, assault)
  • Infection, metabolic disorders
  • Hypoxia (suffocation, near drowning)
  • Substance abuse (alcohol, amphetamines, solvents)
  • Cerebrovascular Accident
  • Dementia


  • Gain an understanding of the patient’s decision-making ability and ability to communicate concerns such as pain or discomfort
  • Engage with their family / support workers but do not forget to involve the patient in their own care
  • Give the patient the time required to understand and to respond, where necessary.
  • Gain insight into objects or situations that may cause the patient distress and avoid them where possible

Key Terms & Links

Services to support Western Australians living with disability, their families and carers, through various programs, initiatives and strategies can be found here.


Australian Federation of Disability Organisations. (2023). Social Model of Disability. Retrieved from https://www.afdo.org.au/social-model-of-disability/

Autism Spectrum Australia. (n.d). What is autism? Retrieved from https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/alert-card

Developmental Disability WA. (2023). Behaviour. Retrieved from https://ddwa.org.au/focus-areas/behaviour/

People With Disability Australia. (2021). PWDA Language Guide: A guide to language about disability. Retrieved from https://pwd.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/PWDA-Language-Guide-v2-2021.pdf

Department of Communities. (2023). Disability Justice Services – further details TBA once PP finalised

United Nations. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Article 1. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/article-1-purpose.html

Western Australia Department of Health (WADOH). 2019. Autism. Retrieved from https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Autism

World Health Organisation. (2023). Disability. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health

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