Disability Definitions


The following distinctions made by the World Health Organization, in the context of health experience, between impairment, disability and handicap:

  • Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.
  • Disability: 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.
  • Handicap: A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that, limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal, depending on age, sex, social and cultural factors, for that individual.

Handicap is therefore a function of the relationships between disabled persons and their environment. It occurs when they encounter cultural, physical or social barriers which prevent their access to the various systems of society that are available to other citizens. Thus, handicap is the loss or-limitation of opportunities to take part in the life of the community on an equal level with others.

Disabled people do not from a homogeneous group. For example, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, the visually, hearing and speech impaired and those with restricted mobility or with so-called “medical disabilities” all encounter different barriers, of different kinds, which have to be overcome in different ways.

The following definitions are developed from that perspective. The relevant terms of action proposed in the World program are defined as prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities.

  • Prevention means measures aimed at preventing the onset of mental, physical and sensory impairments (primary prevention) or at preventing impairment, when it has occured, from having negative physical, psychological and social consequences.
  • Rehabilitation means a goal-oriented and time-limited process aimed at enabling an impaired person to reach an optimum mental, physical and/or social functioning level, thus providing her or him with the tools to change her or his own life. It can involve measures intended to compensate for a loss of functional limitation (for example by technical aids) and other measures intended to facilitate social adjustment or readjustment.
  • Equalization of opportunities means the process through which the general system of society, such as the physical and cultural environment, housing and transportation, social and health services, educational and work opportunities, cultural and social life, including sports and recreational facilities, are made accessible to all.

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