Health providers’ understanding of disability determines how disabled people are treated, and hence it is imperative to address conceptualisations of disability, as this will contribute to better opportunities and realisation of human rights for disabled people. This article will use data from a qualitative study exploring conceptualisations of disability by 22 health service providers from the total health care system in Malawi, including the professional sector (e.g. medical doctors and nurses) and the folk sector (healers and indigenous practices). We will discuss how these perceptions influence the lives of disabled people, using the case of a health service user with physical and speech impairment as an example. Our data show that health providers largely conceptualise disability according to the medical model for disability, contributing to the exclusion of disabled people. The bio-psycho-social model for disability, largely absent as an explanatory model for disability among our informants, is the most inclusive and rights based.