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Best practise for EU funded projects when engaging and communicating with disabled people.

First published:
8 November 2021
Last updated:

The Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability makes an important distinction between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’. It recognises that people with impairments are disabled by barriers that commonly exist in society. These barriers include negative attitudes, and physical and organisational barriers, which can prevent disabled people’s inclusion and participation in all walks of life.


According to the social model of disability, impairment is what has historically been referred to as a ‘disability’ or a health condition. For many (but not all) disabled people, their impairment is a significant part of their life and may form part of their personal identity. For some people, their impairment may require considerable management and they may need ongoing support. Experience of impairment is personal. Everyone’s experience is different. That experience is always valid and always important. It’s important to remember that not everyone you meet will have a visible or physical impairment, such as wheelchair user. Some will have non-visible impairments such as sensory issues or issues with mental health.


Disability by contrast is the inequality, disadvantage, disempowerment or discrimination which may affect people with impairments as a result of barriers to access and inclusion. For example, a staircase is a barrier to a wheelchair user; providing a lift removes that barrier. Just a few other examples of barriers include the lack of British Sign Language (BSL)  or a loop system, the lack of braille, large print or audio information, the lack of flexible and part time working opportunities, the lack of appropriate social care or lack of understanding of mental health issues or autistic spectrum disorder. Disability is therefore something which affects people with impairments but is separate from the impairment itself. Disability is something which disables someone with an impairment. Barriers can be removed. If you remove the barrier then you remove the disability.

The social model was developed by disabled people and was formally adopted by the Welsh Government in 2002 and by the 2014-20 ESF and ERDF Programmes. The Social Model does not deny the importance of impairment, appropriate adjustments or, indeed discussions of these experiences.

ESF definition of disability (WEFO Guidance): A person is disabled if they consider themselves to be a disabled person because of the barriers (attitudinal, environmental and organisational) which prevent them from participating fully in all areas of life.

The historic approach to disability in the UK has been based on the Medical Model of Disability (in which a person’s impairment is seen to be the thing which disables them). This means that adopting the Social Model of Disability requires a fundamental shift in our attitude, culture and how we work. By adopting an approach based on removing barriers,– and working with disabled people to identify solutions, we can create better more inclusive policy and more accessible services for everyone

Removing barriers to employment

A person with a mobility impairment who uses a wheelchair is disabled by a building which doesn’t include lifts, ramps or accessible toilets.

Someone with an energy impairment such as M.E. can be disabled by decisions to hold meetings in which they are unable to participate, for example; the location or length of a meeting.

A short video by Welsh Government explains the Social of Model of Disability in the workplace. More information and advice on the Social Model of Disability is available on Disability Wales’s website.

Definitions of impairments

The ESF 2014-20 Programmes use the social model of disability definition of disability. The term Work Limiting Health Condition was also included in the Programmes to allow options for data capture from those organisations who apply the medical model. We are now more aware of the negative connotations and associations with the term across the Programmes.

Language plays an important role as we know it shapes thoughts which lead to behaviours. The words we use to describe different groups of people have an impact on the way people are seen and treated by others, and can potentially often unintentionally hurt people’s feelings.

Due to the late stage of the current ESF Programmes, we will not be making any formal modifications. However, we encourage projects to think about the language they use when engaging participants to determine eligibility and support. Ensuring language is inclusive and progressive with discussions focused around societal barriers rather than the perceived barriers to employment due to an individual’s impairment/s.

Societal and employment barriers that disabled people can and do face

The vast majority of barriers that disabled people face can be broadly categorised in to one of the following areas.

Attitudinal barriers

The attitudes of individual people can help to create the barriers people face. The decisions you make, the language you use, and your behaviour can either create or remove barriers. Attitudinal barriers can affect all aspects of disabled people’s participation in society. For example, asking a programme participant if they are ‘fit to work’ may be demeaning to a disabled person and they may not therefore wish to disclose their impairment preventing appropriate support to be in place. Whilst some disabled people are able to work, the majority may simply require reasonable adjustments to be made for them to be able to enter or remain in employment. 

In addition, actions which (even unintentionally) isolate or exclude disabled people can cause significant adverse impact on their mental health and personal well-being.

Institutional barriers

Policies and procedures can prevent disabled people from participating fully in education, the workplace and the wider community, whether or not that is their intention.

Policies and procedures can prevent disabled people from participating fully in education, the workplace and the wider community, whether or not that is their intention.

Examples of policies which support the full participation of disabled people may include policies on reasonable adjustments and opportunities for part time and flexible education or employment. The lack of such policies, or the failure to implement them, can cause significant barriers to equality.

Communication barriers

There are many types of communication barriers. For example, using inaccessible language, failing to provide sign language interpretation or alternative formats (including BSL on videos) or placing signage at a level too high for wheelchair users.

Communication barriers affect all aspects of disabled people’s lives. For example, if a Deaf person is not provided with the text equivalent of announcements for platform changes then the Deaf person could miss their train, which compromises their ability to travel, limiting their equality and their ability (for example) to arrive on time for education or employment. 

Environmental barriers

The more obvious examples of environmental barriers include failing to provide full and appropriate building access to wheelchair users or access to audible information of any services or intercom access to buildings for individuals with hearing impairments. Examples of less obvious barriers include not thinking about how disabled people would get to a venue for a meeting, designing rooms with minimal contrast making it hard for people who are blind or partially sighted or have Usher syndrome to take full part in any activities in those rooms, or being unaware of the need for some disabled people to have reduced light or noise levels.

Social Model of Disability – Good practice language

It is important to remember that disabled people have the right to choose the language used to describe them.

How to refer to disabled people collectively

What to do and why

Refer to “disabled people/staff/colleagues”.

Those who understand the social model, recognise and accept the term disabled, because we are (sometimes) disabled by society or the workplace. 

Those who don’t (yet) understand the social model will understand this to mean people with impairments (for example the same group of people).

What not to do and why

Do not refer to “people with disabilities or /people who have disabilities”.

This reinforces the medical model fallacy that disabled people are disabled by their impairments.

How to talk about disability

What to do and why

Make the distinction between impairment (the thing about a person which is different) and disability (the things which society, the environment, policy, practice does to a person with an impairment which disadvantages them).

It is useful to refer to impairment as people ’having an impairment or health condition or using British Sign Language’ as it is inclusive of people who may not recognise the term impairment. 

This is about taking opportunities to challenge the prevailing and unhelpful medical model of disability.

What not to do and why

Do not equate impairment and disability.

This reinforces the medical model.

How to talk about people who aren’t disabled

What to do and why

Use the term ’non-disabled’.

It is factual and makes no value judgements about disabled people.

What not to do and why

Do not refer to people who are “able-bodied”.

This reinforces the medical model view that there is something ‘wrong’ with disabled people and that they are not able’.

How to refer to impairment on an individual level (if there is a need to do so)

What to do and why

In many cases it will be sufficient and appropriate to refer to the nature of the impairment. For example blind, visual impairment, Deaf, hearing impairment, mobility impairment, wheelchair user, energy impairment, cognitive impairment, learning difficulty, mental health condition, autistic. 

In some cases, it may be appropriate to be more specific and refer to an actual condition like MS, dyslexia, epilepsy or depression.

When dealing with individuals, you should obviously be respectful of how they describe themselves (some people with impairments will use medical model language, seeing their impairment as ’a disability’, since that is how society conditions people to think).

What not to do and why

Do not refer to impairments as disabilities (visual disability, energy disability etc.).

This continues to confuse the difference between impairment and disability.

British Sign language fact sheet on terminology Do’s and Don’ts (See Annex A).

Do not refer to ‘hidden disabilities’(medical model), the term ‘invisible impairment’ is preferred if you want to make the point that impairment is not always apparent.

Examples of good practice of the wording on enrolment forms.

Examples of good questions to ask on enrolment forms

Do you consider yourself to be a disabled person because of the barriers which prevent you from participating fully in all areas of life? (These barriers can be because of the attitude of others, the physical environment or organisational barriers)

YES or No tick boxes

Do you consider yourself to have an impairment or health condition or learning difficulty (please tick appropriate boxes)

  • no known disability.
  • 2 or more impairments or debilitating medical conditions.
  • a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or AD(H)D.
  • impairment such as Asperger’s syndrome or Autism.
  • a long standing illness or health condition such as cancer, HIV, diabetes, chronic Heart disease, or epilepsy.
  • a mental health condition, such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder.
  • a physical impairment or mobility issues, such as difficulty using arms or using wheelchair or crutches.
  • Deaf or hearing impairment supported by hearing aids or devices. Blindness or severe visual impairment that is not corrected by glasses.
  • alcohol or substance misuse.

Less helpful questions to ask

  • Are you disabled?
  • Do you have a disability?
  • Do you have a work limiting health condition?
  • Are you fit to work?

Discussions with Participants / Employers / Volunteering & Work experience opportunities

You should discuss the impairment / health condition section of the enrolment form with the participant. This is to reassure them of the need for, and uses of, this data, which might enable more accurate collection of data. You should also be aware of the environment where you ask the participant for this information. Is it conducive to them disclosing support needs? Will they feel safe and supported if they disclose an impairment?

Clearly explain the use of data provided is only for WEFO. Also, with participant’s prior permission might be used to inform potential discussions with employers who might be offering volunteering / work experience opportunities with a view to ensuring any reasonable adjustments required can be discussed and are in place to allow the participant to engage fully. The emphasis should be on how we can support the individual rather than what the impairment is.

Taking account of the discussion with the participant (para above), you must obtain the participant’s consent and specific requirements that they want you to explore with any employer, work experience or volunteering opportunity provider. You should also provide any employer work experience or volunteering provider with information which can support them to make the necessary adjustments required e.g. Access to Work funding.

Just one in three workers in the EU whose daily activities are severely or somewhat limited by a chronic disease report that their workplace has been adapted to accommodate their health problem (on

Guidance to employing disabled people:

Definition of Disability as per the Equality Act 2010

Definition of disability: A disabled person is defined as someone with a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ effect on their ability to do normal daily activities (Equality Act 2010).

Disabled can also include impairments and health conditions that only become apparent in the workplace. An example of this might be where you started work and found that your eyesight was affected by computer screens but had not noticed this problem before you started work.

Annex A: definitions

The aim of this factsheet is to provide clarity on how to refer to Deaf people or people with hearing loss.

There is often confusion about appropriate terms as many professionals have different labels for Deaf people and people with hearing loss. There are also some older terms that have gone out of use, are inaccurate, or are seen by some as offensive.

We respect all people’s rights to identify in the ways in which they feel most comfortable. Therefore, this document acts as a guide only, and does not replace individuals’ rights to identify as they choose.


We use “Deaf” to describe ourselves; people with a strong cultural affinity with other  Deaf people, members of the Deaf community whose first or preferred language is sign language. In the UK, these languages are British Sign Language (BSL) or Irish Sign Language (ISL). We tend to not describe ourselves in terms of disability or medical language, but rather using a cultural linguistic model - we are part of a cultural and linguistic minority of sign language users.


The word ‘deaf’ without a capitalised ‘d’ is often used to describe deaf people who do not use sign language, or the wider group of Deaf people and people with hearing loss.

Hard of hearing

People who identify as hard of hearing often do have high levels of residual hearing, but may require additional volume or clarity, or other adjustments to hear accurately. 


This is a term often used to describe people who have had sudden hearing loss. This can happen after illness or injury. Sometimes, people within this group describe themselves as having “hearing loss”.

In 2013, the World Federation of the Deaf and the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People agreed to both only recognise the terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” in their official terminologies. They note that ‘hearing impaired’ is not an appropriate term, and that deaf and hard of hearing individuals should not be grouped under this single category. 

Medical terms

Deafness is measured in medical contexts on a scale. You may have noted individuals being described as mildly, moderately, severely, or profoundly deaf. 

While these terms are used in a medical context, we do not use this language in other contexts, as we focus on the human rights model of deafness, rather than the medical model of deafness. This means we use words that do not focus on a medical problem, rather on an individual and their rights, and their barriers to access.

Offensive language

Here are some examples of some outdated terms, which are often viewed as offensive, and some alternatives that you can use:



deaf mute


Deaf sign language user

Deaf sign language signer

deaf and dumb


Deaf sign language user

Deaf sign language signer

deaf without speech


Deaf sign language user

Deaf sign language signer

“the deaf”

deaf people
Deaf people

Suffering from/afflicted by deafness


Trapped in a world of silence