Disability vs. Handicap

From DisabilityWiki

The terms disability and handicapped are often referenced when discussing people with physical, mental and sensory limitations. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they have significant differences in meaning. Understanding these distinctions is important for respectful dialogue and advocacy in the context of rights and services for persons with disabilities.

All of these terms deal with barriers faced by individuals, yet their applications differ. Disability typically refers to a condition, like an intellectual disability, while handicapped emphasizes the external and physical barriers that exacerbate these conditions.

Disability Definition[edit]

The term disability generally refers to a physical, sensory, cognitive or mental health condition that impairs a person's ability to perform certain tasks or restricts participation in various life activities.[1] The emphasis lies in the limitations imposed by the condition itself.

Handicap Definition[edit]

Handicap pertains primarily to the societal or environmental barriers that a person with a disability might encounter, rather than the disability itself. These barriers could be physical, like a building without ramp access, or they could involve attitudes like discrimination or bias.[1]


The perspectives from which disability and handicapped are viewed provide a meaningful framework for comparison. Disability is generally considered from two vantage points: medical and social models. The medical model perceives disability as an individual problem that needs medical intervention, while the social model perceives disability as an issue where social and physical structures must be altered to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

In this context, the term handicapped implies a disadvantage resulting from the interaction between the individual's disability and an environment that doesn't adequately accommodate their needs. This definition highlights the necessity of adapting surroundings and social norms to facilitate equality.

Historical Usage and Evolution[edit]

It is also worth noting that the term 'handicapped' has fallen out of favor in many parts of the world due to negative connotations and the rise of person-first language. The word "handicapped" originates from the phrase "hand in cap," a term used in a 17th-century betting game.[2]

By the early 20th century, it began to be used metaphorically to refer to individuals facing disadvantages due to physical or mental impairments. However, over time, the term accrued negative connotations and became largely replaced by the term 'disabled'.

More recently, the term 'person with a disability' is often favored over 'disabled', reflecting the emphasis of the person before their disability.

See Also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 World Health Organization. (2019). "Disability." WHO
  2. Dr. Douglas Baynton. Disability History Museum. "Language Matters: Handicapping An Affliction" DHM