Skip to content
Table of Contents

Definitions and Wording

Disability: Definition

The dictionary (the Big Brockhaus [1]) defines as follows:

“The Disabled” denotes persons in all age groups who, as a result of a congenital or acquired health defect, are impaired in the performance of the usual age corresponding functions of life [1].

The substantive form “the disabled” is generally rejected as discriminatory and should generally be replaced by expressions such as “disabled people”, “persons with disabilities”, “disabled users” etc. However, in the text given here, it is a verbatim quote from the dictionary or WHO texts, which have not been changed.

Disability: View and Use of Language

In the past, disabled people were viewed and classified exclusively according to a definition of deficiency. Society defines a certain “normality” and thus sets a threshold on a one-dimensional scale below which a person is considered disabled.

We paid (...) far too much attention to the disabilities of our patients and paid far too little attention to what was intact or preserved. To use another expression: We were too fixated on “defectology” .... Oliver Sacks [2]

Particularly in the USA and the Scandinavian countries, it has been recognized that this is a truncated view and that the vocabulary used already tends to focus exclusively on deficiencies and not on people with their versatile abilities and talents.

Thus, the substantive form “the disabled” is generally rejected and should be replaced, for example, by designations “disabled people” or, even better, “people with disabilities”. This is not intended to deny or gloss over the fact of a disability. However, such a choice of words should and can help to break through the strict thinking in categories (pigeonholing) and to direct the view to the whole person.

Bodil Jönsson (Certec, Lund University, Sweden), therefore, strongly advises against thinking in one-dimensional scales. She, therefore, deliberately does not speak of “disabled” or “mentally retarded persons” but always of “differently abled persons” [3] (Figure 1).

This view appears to be advantageous for two reasons. First, it helps to counteract prejudices and thus to reduce social barriers to the integration of disabled people. Secondly – and this is of crucial importance for rehabilitation technology – it draws more attention to the strengths and abilities that remain in a person despite a disability. When creating assistive technology for disabled people, however, rehabilitation technology must make use of precisely these abilities and strengths in order to be able to contribute to compensating for weaknesses and deficiencies. Technicians are therefore well advised to focus not on the deficiencies but on the abilities of a disabled person in order to find starting points for creative solutions.

One-dimensional and multi-layered views of disability.

Figure 1: One-dimensional and multi-layered views of disability [4].

Our tests, our approaches and “evaluations” are downright inadequate (...) they show us only the deficiencies (...) not the abilities; they present us with puzzles and schemes, whereas what matters is to grasp music, stories and games, and to recognize how a person spontaneously amounts to his own natural way.
Oliver Sacks [2]


Would you like to cite, share or edit this book? This book is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommericial-ShareAlike 4.0.

Third party intellectual property is appropriately marked or cited and is not part of this book. All attribution and citation information applies only to the contents of this book, which are not derived from third party sources.


If you wish to publish or distribute this book in print, edited or unedited, the following attribution must be included on each physical page:

Available for free at .

If you wish to publish or distribute this book edited or unedited in digital form, the following attribution must be included on each digital page:

Available for free at .


Use the following information to cite this book.

  • Author: Dr. Wolfgang L. Zagler
  • Title: Rehabilitationstechnik
  • Date: March 1, 2008
  • Location: Vienna, Austria
  • Book URL:
  • Chapter URL:

List of Abbreviations

United States of America
World Health Organization

List of Figures

  • Figure 1: One-dimensional and multi-layered views of disability [4].

List of Sources