Types of physical disabilities

Different types of physical disabilities may affect, either temporarily or permanently, a person's physical capacity and/or mobility.

What is a physical disability?

Physical disabilities may affect, either temporarily or permanently, a person’s physical capacity and/or mobility.

There are may different causes of physical disabilities but they can include inherited or genetic disorders, serious illnesses, and injury.

Types of physical disabilities

Acquired brain injury

Acquired brain injuries are due to damage that happens to the brain after birth. They can be caused through a wide range of factors including a blow to the head, stroke, alcohol or drugs, infection, disease such as AIDs or cancer, or a lack of oxygen.

It is common for many people with a brain injury to have trouble processing information, planning, and solving problems. They may also experience changes to their behaviour and personality, physical and sensory abilities, or thinking and learning.

The effects of brain injuries and the disabilities they cause can be temporary or permanent.

Spinal cord injury (SCI)

The spinal cord can become injured if too much pressure is applied and/or if the blood and oxygen supply to the spinal cord is cut. When the spinal cord has been damaged, it leads to a loss of function such as mobility or feeling.

For some people, a spinal cord injury results in paraplegia (loss of function below the chest), for others it leads to quadriplegia (loss of function below the neck).

Accidents account for 79% of spinal cord injuries in Australia – mostly caused by motor vehicle accidents and falls. Other causes include cancer, arthritis, infections, blood clots, and degenerative spinal conditions.

As well as affecting the ability to move through paralysis, it may affect many areas of a person’s body – such as the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, bladder and bowel function, temperature, and sensory abilities.

Spina bifida

Spina bifida is the incomplete formation of the spine and spinal cord in utero. It can cause the spinal cord and nerves to be exposed on the surface of the back, instead of being inside a canal of bone surrounded by muscle.

People with spina bifida experience a range of mild to severe physical disabilities including paralysis or weakness in the legs, bowel and bladder incontinence, hydrocephalus (too much fluid in the brain cavities), deformities of the spine, and learning difficulties.

The cause of spina bifida is not well understood, but it is likely caused by genetic and environmental factors. Adequate intake of folate by the mother in early pregnancy has been found to be a significant factor in preventing a child developing spina bifida.

Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is typically due to an injury to the developing brain before or during birth, caused by a reduced blood supply and lack of oxygen to the brain.

Illnesses during pregnancy such as rubella (the German measles), accidental injury to the brain, meningitis in young children, and premature birth can all be causes.

In Australia, over 90% of cerebral palsy was due to a brain injury while the mother was pregnant, or before one month of age, however, 10% of people develop the disability later in life, usually as a result of infections such as meningitis or encephalitis, stroke, or a severe head injury (Cerebral Palsy Alliance).

People with Cerebral palsy may experience weakness, difficulty walking, lack of muscle control, problems with coordination, involuntary movements, and other symptoms.

Find out more:

Myths about cerebral palsy (CP)

Cystic fibrosis (CF)

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited genetic condition, which affects the body’s respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems.

It specifically affects the mucus and sweat glands in the body, causing mucus to be thick and sticky. In the case of the lungs, this can clog the air passages and trap bacteria causing lung damage and recurrent infections.

In Australia, more than 1 in 25 people carry the cystic fibrosis gene, but being a carrier doesn’t mean that you will also have CF itself (Better Health Channel).

A range of other symptoms are caused by the effects of CF on other parts of the body, including sinus infections, liver damage, diabetes, poor growth, diarrhoea, and infertility.

People with CF can also have low salt levels in the body which causes problems such as fatigue, cramps, and dehydration.

Find out more:

Myths about cystic fibrosis


Epilepsy is a neurological condition where a person has a tendency to have recurring seizures due to a sudden burst of electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can cause unusual movements, odd feelings or sensations, a change in a person’s behaviour, or cause them to lose consciousness.

The causes of epilepsy are not always known, however, brain injuries, strokes, cancer, brain infection, structural abnormalities of the brain, and other genetic factors can all cause epilepsy.

There are many different types of epilepsy and the nature and severity of seizures experienced by people can vary widely. Some people can control their seizures with medication and the condition is not lifelong for every person.

Find out more:

Myths about epilepsy

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS occurs when the myelin sheath – protective tissue around nerve fibres in the body – becomes damaged, causing random patches or scars. The scars can interfere with messages sent through the central nervous system, affecting the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord.

The symptoms of MS are very varied but can include fatigue, loss of motor control, tingling, numbness, visual disturbances, memory loss, depression, and cognitive difficulties.

The progress and severity of MS can be difficult to predict – it may progress very slowly for one person, but develop quickly in another.

Find out more:

Myths about multiple sclerosis (MS)

Muscular dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is a group of genetic disorders that lead to progressive and irreversible weakness and loss of muscle mass. There are more than 30 different types of muscular dystrophy, and each has a separate cause.

Signs and symptoms can be very varied however can include difficulty walking, trouble breathing or swallowing, restriction in joint motion, and heart and other organ problems.

Symptoms of the most common type of the disease appear in childhood, however, others do not become apparent until middle age or older.

Tourette syndrome

Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder which involves involuntary and repetitive vocalisations, sounds, and movements called tics. These tics are neurological not behavioural – which means a person with Tourette syndrome cannot control them.

Vocal tics can include sniffing, throat clearing, tongue clicking, grunting, or more rarely blurting out socially unacceptable words or phrases. Motor tics can include eye blinking, shrugging, nose twitching, head jerking, facial expressions, touching objects or people, spinning around, imitating someone else’s actions, or jumping up and down.

Tourette syndrome is typically diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 21. It is not known exactly what causes Tourette syndrome, but it is likely a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurochemical (chemicals of the brain) factors.

Find out more:

Myths about Tourette syndrome


Dwarfism is short stature (abnormal skeletal growth) which can be caused by over 300 genetic or medical conditions. It is generally defined as an adult height of 4 feet 10 inches or less, with the average height of someone with dwarfism being 4 feet (Mayo Clinic).

In general, there are two categories for dwarfism:

  1. Disproportionate dwarfism: where some parts of the body are smaller, whilst other parts are average or above-average.
  2. Proportionate dwarfism where the body is averagely proportioned, and all parts of the body are small to the same degree

Children with dwarfism may experience a delay on developing motor skills, however, dwarfism does not have a link to any intellectual disability.