The University uses the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) definition of disability. This definition represents a balanced approach to disability that is neither a purely medical nor social model but combines both. It acknowledges that people with disabilities may be impacted by their impairment, but also by their environment.

According to the World Health Organization, the ICF defines disability as "an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. Disability is the interaction between individuals with a health condition (eg cerebral palsy, down syndrome and depression) and personal and environmental factors (eg negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social supports)."11

When disability is defined as an interaction as opposed to an attribute of the person, progress can be made in improving social participation because attitudinal and environmental barriers are removed.

Students Chris Dyke and Sarah Butler

Students Chris Dyke and Sarah Butler participate in the pilot for the University’s Inclusive Education Program.

Similarly, the definition of ‘disability’ is described by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as an "evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others".12

Defining disability in the above way recognises that anyone can experience a decline in health and thereby experience some degree of disability. It recognises disability as part of the human experience, not something which is isolated to a minority group. It shifts the focus to functioning and how this might be affected by a range of contextual factors, including a person’s environment.

The understanding of disability has changed significantly over the past several decades. However, the most important change in the understanding of disability is recognising that the lives of people with disabilities are usually far more limited by existing social, cultural, and economic constraints than by specific physical, sensory, psychological or intellectual impairments.13

Further, disability is a dynamic concept and considered to be any condition that restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions. It could be caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease. A disability may be temporary or permanent, total or partial, lifelong or acquired, and visible or invisible.

"The breadth of impairments and medical conditions covered by the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act (1992) include:

  • Physical - affects a person's mobility or dexterity
  • Intellectual - affects a person's abilities to learn
  • Mental Illness - affects a person's thinking processes
  • Sensory - affects a person's ability to hear or see
  • Neurological – affects the person’s brain and central nervous system,
  • Learning disability
  • Physical disfigurement or
  • Immunological - the presence of organisms causing disease in the body”.14

Legislative and strategic framework

A Disability Action Plan is designed to eliminate discrimination in an active way to improve access on all levels to the University for students and staff with disabilities. It ensures the University meets its legislative and strategic requirements and identifies areas for improvement in a phased, coordinated and responsible approach. Once complete, the plan will be lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission pursuant to section 67 of the Disability Discrimination Act.
This Disability Action Plan has been developed within the bounds of the following legislation and guidelines:


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted by the United Nations in 2006 and ratified by Australia in 2008. “The purpose of the present convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Article 24, Article 27 and Article 30 relate to education; work and employment and participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport respectively. It commits signatories to eliminate discrimination based on disability and to provide access for people with disabilities to education, employment and community life.

Australia is a signatory to both the convention and the optional protocol, which enables Australians to make complaints to the United Nations Disabilities Committee if all domestic remedies have been exhausted. Under section 47 of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, the Government has declared the CRPD to be an international instrument. According to section 11 (1) (f) of the Act the Commission may conciliate the breach of any human right.

However, the Disability Rights Now – Civil Society Report to the CRPD (2012) highlights that “Australia has failed to effectively involve people with disabilities and their organisations at all stages of planning, implementation and monitoring the implementation of the CRPD”. The report’s recommendations include that Australia must properly engage people with disabilities and their representative organisations to participate in the development, implementation and review of all legislation, policies, practices and allocation of resources.15


The Disability Discrimination Act has the following aims.

  1. “Eliminate discrimination against persons on the ground of disability in all areas of life including education, employment, access to premises, accommodation and in the provision of services, goods and facilities.
  2. Ensure, as far as practicable, that persons with disabilities have the same rights to equality before the law as the rest of the community.
  3. Promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the principle that persons with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as the rest of the community.”

The Act prohibits unlawful discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes an inclusive approach whenever possible, rather than the provision of separate or parallel services.

A Disability Action Plan is a proactive approach in complying with the Act. The Act is a complaints-based (as opposed to compliance-based) legislation and developing an action plan assists the University in achieving access and inclusion for people with disabilities. It obliges the University to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in the following areas: employment; education; access to premises; and the provision of goods, services, accommodation and facilities.


The Education Standards provide a framework from the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) specifically for education and training providers to ensure students with disabilities have equitable access and participation to education. The main objective of the Education Standards is to provide a clear understanding of the rights and responsibilities for education and training providers and people with disabilities.

The standards cover a range of areas including reasonable adjustment; enrolment; participation; curriculum development, accreditation and delivery; student support services; harassment and victimisation and treatment of a person who has an associate with a disability.

The Education Standards were recently reviewed and a report on the review was published in August 2012. The review revealed that implementation of the standards needs to be more effective and as a result the report makes 14 recommendations covering the following key themes:

  • awareness raising
  • improving clarity
  • access and participation, discrimination and inclusion
  • complaints, accountability, and compliance processes
  • contemporary education practice and related issues.


The National Disability Strategy (NDS) sets out a 10-year national plan for improving life for Australians with disability, their families and carers. It represents a commitment by all levels of government, industry and the community to a unified, national approach to policy and program development to improve the lives of people with disabilities, their families and carers. The Commonwealth, state and territory and local governments developed the strategy in partnership under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The strategy was formally endorsed by COAG on 13 February 2011.

The strategy is a 10-year plan that sets out six priority areas for action including: inclusive and accessible communities, economic security and learning and skills. However, an implementation plan for the strategy has not yet been finalised. Meaningful engagement with people with disabilities and their representative organisations has not been maintained for the development of the NDS and for the preparation of the NDS implementation plan.16

Other key legislation and guidelines

  • Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth)
  • Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)
  • Privacy and Personal Information Act 1988 (NSW)
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW)
  • Disability Services Act 1993 (NSW)
  • Disability Standards for Education 2005
  • Report on the Review of Disability Standards for Education 2005
  • Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport 2004
  • Disability (Access to Premises – buildings) Standards 2010
  • World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WC3
  • Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) Guidelines relating to Students with a Disability, 2006
  • Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee (AVCC) Guidelines on information access for students with print disabilities, 2004


The University is committed to providing accessible education to people with disabilities. This is reflected in initiative 4b of the University’s strategic plan – the 2011–15 White Paper – which states: Support universal access by investing in implementation of the Disability Action Plan, including the allocation of disability officers and ongoing training for staff.

Background/about the University

The University of Sydney has a long tradition of welcoming people from all social and cultural backgrounds to enrich its environment. From its beginning in 1850 it has supported inclusion and access, and admitted students based on academic merit rather than on their religion or social class.

As the University started to grow during the second half of the 19th century it evolved to respond to the needs of its students and the wider community and developed a culture of benefaction and philanthropy.

In 1881 the University was among the earliest universities in the world to start admitting women on the same basis as men and many decades before either the University of Oxford or Cambridge.

This Disability Action Plan follows in the tradition of providing access to students based on an individual’s ability.

11. World Health Organization (2012). Fact sheet No. 352. Geneva, Switzerland. Available from
12. United Nations (2008). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Available from
13. Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding disability: From theory to practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
14. Australian Network on Disability (2013). Fact sheets. Available from
15. Disability Rights Now – Civil Society Report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2012). Available from
16. Disability Rights Now – Civil Society Report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2012). Available from