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Impairment, Disability, and Handicap: What’s the Difference?

Impairment / Disability / Handicap

We often use these words interchangeably. Similarly, there are common associations with these words, such as the terms visual impairment, learning disability, and physical handicap.

But if we switch the terms, for example, saying learning impairment, physical disability, and visual handicap, instead; or physical impairment, visual disability, and learning handicap, do we alter their meanings, or do they basically mean the same?

Are you confused yet?

One way to help us understand the different aspects in the area of special needs is by clarifying terms. This also helps us in untangling confusions, correcting misconceptions and busting myths.

We develop a better grasp of the roles of treatment, intervention, and environmental modifications in helping and assisting individuals with special needs the moment we distinguish these different terms from one another.

The often cited definitions of these terms are provided by the World Health Organization (1980) in The International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps. Impairment is defined as “any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.” Disability, on the other hand, means “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.” Lastly, handicap is defined as “a disadvantage for a given individual that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal.”

When we unpack these definitions based on their traditional use, impairment means that there is a problem with an organ or structure of the body. It is focused on the actual malformation or malfunction in the body. When we say disability, it means that a person has a functional limitation due to his or her impairment. When we say handicap, it means that the person experiences a disadvantage in filling a normal role in life compared to his or her peers due to the functional limitation caused by the impairment.

Are you still confused?

Let’s use the terms above to explain the differences:

  • Physical impairment pertains to a loss of an anatomical structure; for the benefit of this exercise, let’s say the person lost a leg due to an accident. He can wear prosthetics as a replacement of the lost leg.
  • Physical disability now refers to the inability to walk. To be able to navigate the surroundings, the person can use a wheelchair.
  • Physical handicap now means that this person faces disadvantages that prevent him or her to perform a normal role in life, such as not being able to climb stairs anymore. Or run a marathon. Or be a basketball player. Here is where the environment plays a part. By providing wheelchair access or lift for the person with physical disability, he or she will have no problem going up to the next floors of a building. By providing multi-sport events for athletes with physical disabilities, such as Paralympics, the person will still able to participate in sports.

Let’s try another one:

  • Dyslexia is an example of learning impairment, a reading impairment in particular. Let’s say the student has an above-average intelligence as well as good vision and hearing. Therefore, the impairment is the brain’s inability to decode words to be able to read. The brain cannot correctly associate the sounds with the letter symbols.
  • The inability to read is now the student’s learning disability. It can be improved by employing specific intervention programmes such as multi-sensory instruction in teaching reading.
  • The person may experience various learning handicaps in school, and he or she may fail in class. For example, the student may not be able to complete the reading requirements in class. However, if certain adjustments are provided for the learner, such as taping lectures and listening to books on audiotapes, then he or she may fare well, similar to his or her peers. This will decrease the student’s handicap and will not interfere with his or her progress in school.

It is very important to know that we have a vital role in helping individuals with special needs. By adapting and modifying the environment to be able to assist and accommodate them, their disability does not have to be a handicap. Remember, a handicap is a disadvantage, and oftentimes, it is the environment that causes the disadvantage. When we do our part to meet their needs, they are able to fulfil a role similar to their peers.