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Disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures

Disability is a socially constructed concept arising from western culture and society. People from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds may have a very different understanding or concept of disability, and in many traditional languages there is no word for disability.   

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians experience disability at up to twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. While many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people receive support for their disability, historically they have been up to four times less likely to receive a funded disability service.

A number of factors may affect the ability of some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-identify, or identify their family member as having a disability. These can include:

  • Previous negative experiences of discrimination from government services - both mainstream and disability related.
  • Issues of cultural safety when dealing with staff who are not familiar with cultural customs and practices.
  • Fear that coming forward about disability, or the challenging support needs of a child in their care, may affect a child remaining in their care.
  • Lack of service provision in remote communities and lack awareness of disability services in communities (Commonwealth of Australia, 2017).


Some Aboriginal communities believe that disability can come about as a result of payback (resulting in guilt and shame), curses, as a result of violence or substance use, or spiritual beliefs (for example the mother doing something wrong while pregnant with baby) (Ability Centre, 2015). Some communities also believe that disability is not a ‘sickness’ but just ‘difference’, and children are treated the same way regardless of their disability. 

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: 2015 (as cited by Queensland Government, 2019) indicate that in 2012-2013:

  • Approximately 36% of Indigenous Australians had some form of disability.
  • About 6.4% of the Indigenous population had a severe or profound disability – approximately 18% of Indigenous people with disability.
  • Indigenous Australians were twice as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to have severe or profound disability.

The most common disability type among Indigenous people with severe or profound disability were:

  • Physical disability (70% of those with severe or profound disability)
  • Sight, hearing or speech-related disabilities (53%)
  • Psychological disabilities (34.7%)
  • Intellectual disabilities (33.7%)”.

Some literature suggests that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, disability as an issue is ranked fairly low in comparison to issues such as suicide rates, imprisonment rates and other issues faced by struggling communities. Hollingsworth (as cited in Dudgeon et al., 2014) state:

 “A long history of poverty, marginalisation and racism (for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population following European colonisation) can mean that many Indigenous Australians do not see impairment as a disability but as an aspect of more general challenges and disadvantages”.

Racism and disability

There are many factors that impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as stress, social exclusion, inequality and racism. The implications of poor social and emotional wellbeing can cause and exacerbate disability among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. Consider the following pathways in which racism can cause or exacerbate disability:

  1. “Reduced access to the societal resources required for health (e.g. employment, education, housing, health care) and increased exposure to health risks (e.g. unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system);
  2. Negative self-esteem and self-worth leading to mental ill health;
  3. Stress and negative emotion reactions which lead to mental ill health as well as affecting the immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems;
  4. Disengaging from healthy activities (e.g. exercise, adequate sleep, taking medications);
  5. Maladaptive responses to racism such as smoking, alcohol and other drug use; and
  6. Injury through racially motivated assault, resulting in further negative physical and mental health outcomes”

(Zubrick et al, as cited in Walker et al, 2014).

International Classification of Functioning Framework 

While the International Classification of Functioning Framework (ICF) has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation, there has been limited research done regarding the use of the framework with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Alford, Remedios, Webb and Ewen, 2013). While the framework can be flexible, it was “…unable to capture the spiritual significance of traditional practices and the consequence of shame, isolation and loneliness…” (Alford, et al, 2013).

When working with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person with disability, always be guided by the person to inform your understanding of their disability. Using the ICF framework can provide a good foundation to develop your understanding of the functional impact of the person’s disability, however there may be other cultural considerations that go beyond the scope of the ICF for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. Talk with a cultural practice advisor for further advice.

Cultural Competence

Importantly, for individuals, cultural competence requires far more than becoming culturally aware or practising tolerance. Cultural competence is the ability to identify and challenge one’s own cultural assumptions, values and beliefs. It is about developing empathy and connected knowledge, the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, or at the very least to recognise that others may view the world through a different cultural lens. (Stewart, as cited in Walker, et al., 2014).

As part of understanding the interface between disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, you must understand broader concepts of culture and the histories and lived experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. You also need to reflect inwardly about your own culture to understand your own cultural lens and how this frames your world view. Starting the Journey is Child Safety’s foundational Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Capability training and is an excellent starting point. As the name suggests, cultural competence is a journey. It is an ongoing process that includes individual and organisational knowledge, values, skills and attributes inclusive of cultural awareness, cultural safety and cultural respect (Walker, Shultz & Sonn, 2014).

Further reading

To understand cultural competence, read the following resources:

Practice guide Culturally capable behaviours

Walker, R., Schultz, C. & Sonn, R. (2014). Cultural competence – Transforming policy, services, programs and practice. In Dudgeon, P., Milroy, H. & Walker, R. (Eds.), Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (second edition). Retrieved from

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Language

There are approximately 250 different indigenous dialects across Australia, however many of these languages are no longer used exclusively. A longitudinal study of the language of indigenous Australian children found that approximately a quarter of children speak Indigenous languages and more than ten per cent speak creoles (McLeod et al, 2013).


“Cre-oles began as pidgins by merging English and Indigenous languages to enable communication on missions and outstations. Over the years, these pidgins have developed in complexity into languages in their own right, and are learned as first languages by some children” (McLead et al, 2013).

The study found that children in remote communities were more likely to speak an indigenous language than their peers in urban environments.

When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, understanding any languages spoken by the child and their family is important. This information should be shared, with the consent of the child and their family, with the safety and support network. This understanding will:

  • Reduce the potential for children who speak languages other than English to be assessed or mistaken as having ‘bad english’.
  • Prompt professionals to adjust their communication approaches or assessment tools with children and parents to reduce the likelihood of incorrect diagnoses or interventions due to misunderstanding a child or parent’s language.
  • Provide opportunities for the child’s language to be understood and nurtured by others, and the child’s cultural connections to be strengthened..

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sign language

Like the varying dialects that are spoken and written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there are a variety of sign languages used. Mainstream sign language used in Australia is referred to as ‘Auslan’ which is based on a mixture of British, Scottish and Irish sign languages, however some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use a variation of Auslan or different signs known locally to them.


If you are working with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child or parent who uses sign language, ask the family if they are using Auslan or a locally adapted sign language. This will assist you to when organising an interpreter or communication partner, and will reduce the potential for communication breakdown.

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