Module 1 - Conceptualizing Disability (P.3 of 7)

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Impairment, Disability, Or 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):

  • Impairment – any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.

  • Disability – any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.

  • 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.

(Falvo, 2005; Cook + Hussey, 2002; WHO, 1980).

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Impairment refers to a problem with a structure or organ of the body.

Disability is a functional limitation with regard to a particular activity.

Handicap refers to an environmental factor preventing the filling of a normal life role.