Physical disabilities

A summary of what a physical disability entails, and how care givers can assist you.

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What is a physical disability?

A physical disability is a broad term describing a 'long-term' and 'substantial' condition affecting a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities. A physical disability can limit mobility, agility, physical capabilities and stamina.

The definition of physical disability is not about focussing on the physical condition; it is about how the condition affects daily life and impacts activities such as; work and personal care.

A person can acquire a disability due to an accident, injury or illness. They can also be born with a physical disability. Examples of physical disability include; amputations, cerebral palsy, Carpal tunnel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and epilepsy.

How does a physical disability affect day-to-day life?

A physical disability reduces the ability to perform body movements such as; sitting and standing, walking, moving arms and legs, muscle control and touching and holding objects. It may not stop you from performing certain tasks, but it will make them more difficult. Day-to-day activities such as preparing food or going to the toilet can take longer.

What causes a physical disability?

Physical disability covers a vast range of disabilities. These disabilities can be congenital, hereditary or acquired.

Congenital or hereditary

A person with a congenital or hereditary physical disability will have had the condition from birth and developed it due to issues with muscle cells, inherited genetic problems, or may have experienced an injury during birth.


Not everyone with a physical disability is born with it. A person can acquire a physical disability; this might happen for several reasons: infections, brain injuries, diseases, and severe accidents, to name a few. They may also become disabled after experiencing other medical conditions, such as dementia, heart attack and stroke.

What different types of disabilities are there?

As previously mentioned, the term 'physical disability' covers various disabilities that affect people differently. Physical disabilities can include; visual impairment, chronic fatigue, mobility impairment, hearing loss, seizures and chronic pain.

Physical disabilities are defined under two main groups:

Neuromusculoskeletal disability - Characterised by pain and limitations and restrictions in mobility due to disorder or degeneration of the nervous system or diseases.

Neuromuscular disabilities include; poliomyelitis, spina bifida, stroke, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy and head injury.

Musculoskeletal disability - Affecting bone, muscles and joints. Including deformity or loss of limbs, Muscular Dystrophy and brittle bone disease. Common examples of Musculoskeletal disabilities are; osteoarthritis, back and neck pain, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and fractures associated with bone fragility.

Examples of physical disability

Acquired brain injury - Damage to the brain post-birth can be caused by many factors, such as; head injury, the effects of drug and alcohol misuse, stroke, diseases and lack of oxygen. Acquired brain injuries may mean that the person struggles with daily activities and finds it hard to move particular parts of their body.

Arthritis - causes inflammation and pain in the joints. Adults and children can experience arthritis. There are many different types of arthritis, the most common being osteoarthritis, which can make movement difficult.

Cerebral Palsy - Impairment of motor function caused by non-progressive disorders and damage to the brain. Cerebral palsy occurs at a young age and causes problems with coordination and movement.

Epilepsy - is a neurological condition that generates recurring seizures. Epilepsy ranges in severity and type from person to person. Everyone's experience of epilepsy is different.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) - Affects the spinal cord and brain, causing physical problems with balance, movement and sensation. Symptoms include; loss of motor control, visual disturbances, fatigue and numbness. MS affects a person for their whole life, there are treatments, but average life expectancy is reduced for people who have MS.

Spinal cord injury - is a partial or total impairment of motor and sensory functions. Spinal cord injuries can lead to tetraplegia and paraplegia. Tetraplegia is paralysis from the neck down, and paraplegia creates a loss of movement in the lower limbs.

Physical disabilities and ageing

As we age, we expect certain activities to become more complex. Lower energy and natural reduction in muscle strength contribute to this and are part and parcel of growing older. Challenges can be far more significant if you or your loved one have a physical disability.

Mobility issues can range considerably. Some people remain active, and others may find they become reliant on mobility aids to carry out day-to-day tasks and get around. Some people may experience such severe physical disabilities that they are entirely confined to a bed or a wheelchair.

Caring for people with a physical disability

Local councils provide social care to support people with physical disabilities to live safe, independent, and fulfilling lives. If you are the person responsible for a family member with a learning disability, help is available to support you. Support can vary from a small amount of care (a few hours a week) to 24/7 care.

Your local authority will assist you by conducting a 'needs assessment' to decide the next steps.

Social services may offer help with funding:

  • Daycare services for physical disabilities
  • Care at home: Including everything from extended visits helping with day-to-day tasks and personal care to short enabling visits.
  • Respite care for people with physical disabilities: giving you or the carer a break
  • Live-in care or care homes for those who need 24/7 care

More information

For more help and support, talk to your local authority. Skope UK also helps with advice and support.

Using a care provider can help you:

  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Remain independent
  • Maintain your day-to-day routine
  • Manage responsibilities
  • Manage your home and keep it tidy and clean
  • Keep healthy and fit


How many people in the UK have a physical disability?

According to the family resources survey (2019-20), There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK.

What percentage of the UK population does disability affect?

According to the Family Resources Survey (2019-20), 19% of working adults, 46% of pension-age adults and 8% of children are disabled.

What is a physical disability?

A physical disability is a broad term describing a 'long-term' and 'substantial' condition affecting a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities. A physical disability can limit mobility, dexterity, physical capabilities and stamina.