Participation, disability and the Charter of Rights

Adults’ attitudes towards children and young people with a disability, will impact on how they perceive, respect and act upon children’s rights. Under the medical model of disability the problems are seen to lie with the individual. The individual needs to change and adapt to circumstances (if they can) and there is no suggestion that society needs to change. In contrast, the social model sees disability as a normal aspect of life and that people with impairments are disabled by barriers in society, by its structures and norms.

Consider a boy, Matthew, who cannot hold open a door for long enough to get through due to weakness in his right arm. Under the medical model, Matthew is seen as a victim of his impairment. He may try and get someone else to hold the door open for him but he is not given control of his environment and therefore remains dependent on others. The social model includes Matthew and alters the environment to meet his needs. It sees society as having the knowledge and resources to offer solutions – such as in this instance, an electric or revolving door.

It is the social model that best supports the child’s right to participate. The appropriate degree of participation for an individual child or young person will be determined by the nature of the matter for decision or under discussion, the circumstances and their capacity to participate.

To make it possible for a child or young person with a disability to participate it is critical to find out how they usually communicate. They may use a combination of different communication methods including the use of pointing and gestures, pictures or symbols, spelling, sign language, speech generating devices or direct observation. Involving someone who is trained or familiar with a particular method of communication to encourage, assist or interpret on behalf of the young person can greatly help.

Information should be presented to children and young people with a disability in a way they can understand. Some pictures, photographs or symbols as a visual cue may help a child with a disability understand the types of things that will be discussed during a case planning session. A young person with a disability may choose not be to present at a meeting, but may spend some time with their worker or advocate prior to the meeting to express their preferences. They may complete a ‘What’s important to me’ activity to ensure that their views are accurately represented.

Participation in decision making by children and young people with a disability can be best supported if adults:

  • understand the child or young person’s disability • know how they communicate best
  • collaborate with and learn from specialist disability service providers
  • engage, as needed, the assistance of others with specialised skills
  • prepare and support the child or young person to participate
  • are proactive in identifying opportunities for participation
  • allow time to explore the options to promote planning and inclusion.


Amongst Australian children aged up to 14 years of age, approximately one in 12 has a disability and about half of these have a severe or profound disability that affects their ability to do day to day activities.


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

At the end of 2008 there were a total of 244 children under guardianship receiving a service from Disability SA and Novita, 12 per cent of the total.

Disability SA



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