Impairment is any loss or abnormality of structure or function, be it psychological, physiological, or anatomical. A disability is any restriction or inability to perform an activity in the manner or range considered normal for a human being. The restriction or inability results from impairment. A handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal. As traditionally used, impairment refers to a problem with a structure or organ of the body; disability is a functional limitation with regard to a particular activity; and handicap refers to a disadvantage in filling a role in life relative to a peer group.1
Among these three terms, the one that is misused the most ishandicap. It is often used when impairment or disability would be more appropriate. For example, a person without legs in a wheel chair is often said to be handicapped. In actuality, the person is impaired by a loss of anatomical structure; has a disability with regard to running but not to reading or cooking; and is handicapped by stairways but not by ramps. When we use labeling terms correctly, we see many more possibilities for people living with disabilities.
This misuse of disability terminology is subtle and not easily identified. A handicap is a disadvantage in filling a role in life relative to a peer group. The disadvantages are barriers that prevent role fulfillment but that, when removed, create access and allow the person with the impairment or disability to perform fully. When a person is handicapped by a disadvantage such as a barrier, then the person does not have access. When the barrier is removed, the person has access and is no longer handicapped, even though he or she lives with a disability or impairment. It is the barrier that creates the handicap, not the disability.Handicapped Parking is literally parking that is blocked by barriers and unusable by a person with a disability. Accessible Parking is barrier-free parking that can be used by a person with a disability. When asked if your parking spaces and building are barrier free, simply say, "Yes, we have accessible parking and an accessible building."
Another example of improper term-use is the phrase handicapped accessibility. It is an oxymoron; a non sequitur. It makes no sense. No logic flows from the pairing of its terms. Being handicapped and accessible at the same time is impossible. It must be one or the other but not both at the same time. When people have no access, they are handicapped. When they have access, they are not handicapped. The person in the wheel chair encountering stairs is handicapped by the stairs (or put at a disadvantage relative to peers who can walk) but has access with a ramp. Removing barriers creates access for people to perform their roles and not be handicapped. It is improper to label someone in a wheelchair as handicapped. It is proper to use the word handicap when the context includes a barrier to access. The staircase handicaps the person in the wheelchair. When the person in the wheelchair can use a ramp, then he or she is no longer handicapped.
The misuse of the phrase handicapped accessible, which literally means accessibility for the handicapped, seems to make sense because handicapped is used as a noun. It mistakenly locates responsibility for the handicap, or barrier, in the person with the disabling condition. In this usage, handicap is used as a noun to label and blame people as in the phrase the handicapped. But the responsibility for the handicapping condition is in the society and its institutions that ignore the barriers that impede access. People with disabilities are not handicapped until they encounter a barrier that impedes or prevents access. This language-use problem occurs because we are careless in the way we equate impairment, disability, and handicap, as if they are synonyms when, in fact, they are not.
1. Definitions are taken from The World Health Organization, 1980:International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps.