Handicap vs Disability: What Are the Differences?

According to the CDC, approximately 61 million US adults live with some sort of disability. The World Health Organization describes a disabled person as someone with limited opportunities for becoming involved in activities when compared with the majority of people. 

What does handicapped mean, then? Is it just an old-fashioned or politically incorrect term for the same thing? In many cases, the use of these words depends on the context.

Keep reading for a comparison of the terms handicap vs disability.

Handicap vs Disability Definitions

Disability means being unable to function in some way without assistance, e.g. being unable to get around without a wheelchair. It can refer to any kind of impairment, be it physical, mental, sensory, emotional, physical, or developmental.

Disabilities can stem from a genetic defect, accident, or trauma.

There’s a fine line between disability and a handicap. A handicap is usually a partially limiting condition that creates difficulty in performing some tasks. 

In many cases, a handicap is the consequence of a disability. For example, a child with a learning disability has a handicap when it comes to reading. 

The word ‘disability’ only came into everyday use during the 1990s, while the word ‘handicap’ dates back to the 1500s. Some people believe it stems from the words, ‘hand-in-cap’ which refers to disabled people reduced to begging to survive.

It’s due to this negative association that the word ‘disabled’ became more common. 

There are some instances where the words do have two distinct meanings, though. Particularly in the medical field.

Medical Distinction Between Disability and Handicap

In the medical field, the WHO definition of disability applies. Disability refers to a lack of function to due to a bodily impairment, either physical or mental, temporary or permanent.

For instance, the inability to stand or walk due to cerebral palsy that affects the legs is a disability.

On the other hand, a handicap prevents or limits someone from doing something that most other people of their age, culture, or gender can do. In the same example, the person’s handicap would be an inability to perform in sports considered normal for their age. 

Disability and Social Security

When it comes to answering the question, ”what is a disability?” regarding eligibility for Social Security benefits, the definition changes again.

According to the Social Security Administration, a person has a disability if they can’t do the work they used to do, or has a medical problem that prevents them from finding work. 

For purposes of this definition, the disability must endure for a year or more. The SSA does not use the term handicap at all and only pays benefits for complete disability. Partial or temporary disabilities don’t apply.

This article outlines the different types of disability claims in more detail.

Speak Cautiously

The intricacies of handicap vs disability are so closely intertwined that most people use the term ‘disability’ for both. In many instances, disabled people find the word ”handicapped” extremely offensive, even when used in the correct context. 

So, if you want to avoid offending people, it’s best to use the politer version of the two terms when appropriate.

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