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What’s the Difference Between a Disability, Handicap and Impairment?

A person with a disability, handicap or impairment may have a physical, mental, or developmental condition that may limit their ability to participate in various aspects of life. While these terms may be used interchangeably in some cases, it is important to understand the subtle differences between them, as well as the potential implications and connotations of each.

Having a Disability

A “Disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” According to the Emory University School of Medicine

An individual who has a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities is considered to be disabled. It is used primarily in medical or legal contexts to describe individuals who qualify for certain disability-related accommodations or benefits.

A person with a disability is like someone who uses a wheelchair to move around. The person lacks the ability to walk and thus is unable to perform an activity in a manner considered normal for a human being.  This does not necessarily prevent the person from other activities such as driving a car or using a computer.  A wheelchair enables that person to overcome their disability and participate fully in a variety of activities.

Do We Say That People are Handicapped?

People have traditionally used the term “handicapped” to describe people with physical or mental impairments, but it can be considered outdated and offensive. The term can be viewed as derogatory is it often suggests that the person is inferior or less capable.

A handicap usually refers to a disadvantage resulting from a disability that limits or prevents fulfillment of an action.

So in defining the word “handicap”, let’s again use the example of a person that uses a wheelchair. The person may be limited in their ability to move around and to reach destinations.  But if the person doesn’t have a wheelchair, and therefore, is unable to substantially move at all, that would be considered a handicap.  In other words, a person’s disability may limit their ability to accomplish something in the same way as an able-bodied person, but a handicap is something that a person is not able to do at all.  In this way, a person with a disability can also have an unrelated handicap.

What’s an Impairment?

“Impairment,” as defined at Emory’s website,  “is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.”

In other words, “impairment” can be used to describe an older person that wears reading glasses. Although the person may still be able to see, their vision is impaired in that they may have difficulty distinguishing certain objects or seeing clearly. It may limit their ability to drive a car or read small print without glasses, but it does not necessarily stop them from doing most activities.  Since impaired vision is a common and normal part of aging, it wouldn’t necessarily be considered a disability or handicap unless the severity began limiting the person’s ability to function in society.

In summary, “disabled,” “handicapped,” and “impaired” are all terms that can be used to describe certain limitations to a person’s life. A disability is a functional limitation with regard to a particular activity.  A handicap refers to a disadvantage in filling or completing an action in life. An impairment refers to a problem with a structure or organ of the body that may not yet be considered as severe as a disability or handicap.

Despite being frequently used interchangeably, it is important to understand the nuances of these terms so as not to offend or belittle others. It’s always a kindness to use respectful language when discussing any individual and their unique situation.