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What is the Difference between Impairment, Disability and Handicap

The terms disability, impairment, and handicap have been used synonymously within the education, counseling, and health literature. Although, each of these three terminology can be used when discussing disabling conditions, they convey three different meanings. To promote the appropriate use of these terms the World Health Organization (WHO) provided the following definitions in their International Classification of Impairment, Disability, and Handicap (1980): Section 1(2) of the DDA defines a ‘disabled person’ for the purposes of the Act as a person who has a ‘disability’. A person has a ‘disability’ if: ‘he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on her or his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ (s1 (1)).

Impairment – any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. It is an injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a loss or difference of physiological or psychological function.

Handicap – the result when an individual with an impairment cannot fulfill a normal life role.Based on these definitions, it should be understood a handicap is not a characteristic of a person, rather a description of the relationship between the person and the environment. Consider the following.

A person who is born blind (the impairment) is unable to read printed material, which is how most information is widely disseminated (the disability). If this person is prevented from attending school or applying for a job because of this impairment and disability, this is a handicap. This person may be able to perform the daily activity (reading) using some type of assistive technology to overcome this handicap. By attributing the handicap to the environment as opposed to an individual, the emphasis is placed on using AT to produce functional outcomes as opposed to focusing on functional limitations.

Courtesy of Continue to Learn l
(Falvo, 2005; Cook + Hussey, 2002; WHO, 1980).

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