Many problem with the person’s body. The World

Many people use the terms ‘impairment’, ‘disability’, ‘developmental delay’ and ‘handicap’ interchangeably. Though these terms are related, they do not mean the same thing. This lesson explains the differences in these terms.

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Chris is a 12-year-old who has a condition called cerebral palsy. Specifically, his form of cerebral palsy is called moderate spastic diplegia, which means his leg muscles continually contract, making his legs stiff and difficult to bend or relax.

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Chris walks with a slow, jerky motion and cannot run. He wears braces on his legs to pull his feet into a flexed position and allow walking. He also takes several medications to alleviate his symptoms.Does Chris have impairment, a disability, a developmental delay or a handicap? While many people use these terms interchangeably, they mean different things, although the differences might seem subtle at first.

Each term refers to a situation in which a person experiences a condition that keeps them from functioning as ably as an average person.Generally speaking, impairment is the actual condition, while a disability is the restriction of ability caused by the condition. A developmental delay is an interruption in a child’s development without a known cause.

Finally, a handicap refers to the way impairment restricts a person’s functioning.Let’s take a closer look at each of these terms.


The term impairment refers to a person’s actual abnormality or condition. Impairment is the specific problem with the person’s body. The World Health Organization defines impairment as ‘any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function’.Chris has impairment. His impairment is his inability to flex or relax his stiff legs.

Because he has cerebral palsy, his impairment is not expected to get better or significantly worse. Though there are measures that can be taken to aid Chris, his impairment is considered to be permanent and irreversible.


Now let’s look at disability. A disability is the restriction or limitation caused by the impairment. The World Health Organization defines disability as ‘any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’. In other words, disability refers to the person’s inability or reduced ability to perform a particular function. A disability is a functional limitation.

Chris is disabled. His difficulty walking and inability to run are disabilities. The level of his walking disability is improved through the braces, and there may be other aids that can improve his ability to walk and run. However, both disabilities are considered permanent and irreversible.

Developmental Delay, Not Disability

Some disabilities are known as developmental disabilities. A developmental disability is a chronic problem that results from impairment. They are known as ‘developmental’ because these disabilities appear between birth and 22 years of age.

The disability continues for the duration of the person’s life.For example, Chris has developmental disabilities because he experiences limitations resulting from impairment he’s had since birth. Because of the nature of Chris’s impairment, it would have surfaced no later than the age he attempted to crawl or walk. He will experience these limitations throughout his life.We should note that a developmental disability is not the same thing as a developmental delay.

What’s the difference? A developmental delay refers to a situation in which a child does not achieve an expected developmental milestone, but the cause is not yet known.For example, a baby is expected to roll over by herself by the time she is six months old. Rolling over is a developmental milestone. Let’s say Chris’s sister Cassie was eight months old and had still not rolled over. Cassie’s pediatrician deemed that to be a developmental delay because Cassie seemed otherwise healthy. Cassie began rolling over a few weeks later, which is not unusual. Unlike developmental disabilities, developmental delays are temporary.

The child will either meet the milestone eventually, or an underlying impairment will be discovered.


Lastly, let’s look at the term handicap. A handicap is the way the impairment restricts or limits the person’s normal functioning. The World Health Organization defines handicap as ‘a disadvantage for a given individual.

. . that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal’.

It’s the result, or impact, of the disability on the person’s quality of life.It’s important to note that not all disabled people are also handicapped. Disability describes the person’s limitation, while handicap refers to the impact the person’s disability has on normal life activities such as going to school or driving a car.Chris is handicapped. His cerebral palsy restricts his ability to move as freely as other children his age. Because of these restrictions, he is unable to play most sports, since he cannot run. He is unable to climb the stairs at his school.

He sometimes needs personal assistance in his classroom and requires extra time to get to his classes. These are handicaps that result from his physical limitations.

Lesson Summary

Many people use the terms impairment, disability, developmental delay and handicap interchangeably. However, these terms do not mean the same thing.Impairment refers to the actual abnormality or condition. A disability is the restriction or limitation caused by the impairment. A developmental delay occurs when a person does not achieve a developmental milestone and the cause is unknown.

Finally, a handicap refers to the way impairment restricts a person’s normal functioning.


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