A physical disability is a physical condition that affects a person’s mobility, physical capacity, stamina, or dexterity. It could be any one of a number of physical conditions that significantly inhibits a person’s ability to undertake routine daily activities. These conditions include but not limited to brain or spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, respiratory disorders, epilepsy, and hearing or visual impairments.

The causes of a physical disability are as varied as the conditions themselves. They usually fall into one of two categories: Hereditary/Congenital – This is where a person has been born with a physical disability or developed one due to inherited genetic problems, has suffered an injury at birth, or has issues with their muscles. Acquired – An acquired physical disability could be due to a road traffic accident, workplace incident, via an infection or disease, or as a side effect of a medical condition such as a stroke or cancer.

Types of Physical Disabilities

Around 10% of Australians, some 2.6 million people, have some form of physical disability. People with physical disabilities have a physical impairment which has a substantial and long term effect on their ability to carry day-to-day activities. Other physical disabilities include impairments which limit other facets of daily living, such as respiratory disorders, blindness and epilepsy.

Traumatic brain injury

Brain injuries are a physical disability which has occur through accidents, stroke, tumours, infections, degenerative neurological disease, or lack of oxygen. Our brains are terribly fragile and vulnerable, and can be damaged easily, resulting in TBI. The injury could damage to the cognitive, physical, emotional and sensory functions of the brain resulting in minor or profound disabilities that can be temporary or permanent.

Learn more about Brain Injuries.


Epilepsy is a disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the brain that triggers recurring unprovoked seizures. Anyone can have a seizure, but it is only the tendency to have recurrent seizures that epilepsy is diagnosed. The causes of epilepsy are not always known, but brain trauma, strokes, brain cancer and drugs and alcohol are thought to be significant factors. Some people can control their seizures with medication and lead relatively normal lives, while others can take on secondary physical disabilities as a result of brain damage caused by the seizures. However, the condition is not permanent for every person.

Visit Epilepsy Australia for more information.

Cerebral palsy (CP)

Cerebral palsy is a blanket term commonly referred to as “CP”. It describes a loss or impairment of motor function that interferes with the way the brain controls the body’s muscles resulting in speech, movement and posture difficulties. It is caused by brain injury or abnormal development of the brain that occurs while a child’s brain is still developing – before birth, during birth or immediately after birth. It is non-life threatening, and children are expected to live well into adulthood. The brain lesion is the result of a one-time brain injury and will not produce further degeneration of the brain.

Visit Cerebral Palsy Alliance for more information.

Cystic fibrosis (CF)

CF is an inherited genetic condition that requires both parents to carry the gene. Today, CF affects more than one million people in Australia. Most people will require treatment on a daily basis, and some may require aerosol medications to assist with breathing. CF affects the mucus and sweat glands in the body, causing mucus to become thick and sticky, clogging the tiny air passages in the lungs, leading to breathing problems and recurring lung infections that can cause irreversible lung damage.

Visit Cystic Fibrosis Australia for more information.

Spinal cord injury (SCI)

The spinal cord can become injured by trauma, road accidents, falls, or by cutting off blood and oxygen supply to the spinal cord. Around 51% of SCI cases are the result of traumatic injury (accidents), with the remaining 49% the result of non-traumatic injury (disease). SCI is a physical disability that is often permanent. As well as affecting use of the limbs, SCI may also affect cardiovascular and respiratory systems, bladder and bowel function, temperature and sensory abilities. As of April 2014, there were more than 12,000 Australians living with spinal cord injury.

Visit Spinal Cord Injuries Australia for more information.

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS is a disease with unpredictable symptoms that can vary in intensity. It is a progressive autoimmune disorder where protective coverings to nerve cells are damaged, causing diminished function in the brain and spinal column. While some people only have fatigue and numbness, severe cases can also cause paralysis, vision loss, and reduced brain function. It affects women twice as often as men and no two people will experience the same symptoms. The progress and severity of MS can be difficult to predict.

Visit MS Australia for more information.

Spina bifida (SB)

Spina Bifida is a term that describes a number of different birth defects that contribute to problems with the development of the nervous system and the spinal column. SB results from problems in the first month of pregnancy, when the neural tube is developing in the fetus. The severity of the symptoms depends on the location of opening in the spine. People with SB often develop learning difficulties, mobility symptoms and paralysis, muscle wastage, scoliosis, and bowel and bladder symptoms.

Learn more about Spina Bifida.

Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS)

PWS is a rare genetic disorder that affects development and growth. Characteristics may include short stature, skeletal abnormalities, eye problems, intellectual disability, emotional instability and excessive eating, which often leads to obesity. An abnormality of chromosome 15 is seen in the majority of people with PWS. There is no cure, but treatments can improve quality of life.

Visit PWS Association of Australia for more information.

Our mission is to support people with Physical Disabilities to lead meaningful and valued lives. Get in touch with our specialists today for more information on how we can help.

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