Last updated 6 December 2016

The World Health Organisation distinguishes between impairment, disability and handicap and states the following:

  • An impairment is any loss of physical or psychological function (e.g. brain damage).
  • A disability is any loss or reduction in a person’s functional ability caused by an impairment.
  • A handicap is the social or environmental disadvantage that society imposes on a person with a disability (e.g. physical barriers to people who use wheelchairs).

Accordingly, it is incorrect to say that a person has a handicap, when it is society that handicaps people who have a disability. Therefore disability can be generally defined as:

the functional consequence of impairment of the body or human functioning, leading to restrictions on a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions to do tasks.

A disability:

  • may or may not be visible
  • can be caused by an accident, trauma, disease, genetics, ageing, or environmental and social factors
  • is specific to each person.