Many disabled people are not ill, but differ from the expected norm in terms of physical or mental functioning. To give an example, someone who has lost a limb is not ill, but is disabled in relation to certain activities such as driving a car. What the person needs here is not medical intervention but an adapted car and the financial resources necessary to obtain and run it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has distinguished between impairment, disability and handicap:
- Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.
- Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
- A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role (depending on age, sex, social, cultural and environmental factors) for that individual.
Handicap is a word that is not in favour now, and many writers use the terms impairment and disability, but not quite as above.
The WHO (2000) has produced a draft re-working of the above definitions. The word handicap has been dropped. Impairments are defined as "problems in body function or structure as a significant deviation or loss". The term disability now refers to the negative aspects of the interaction between impairment, activity limitation, participation restriction, and barriers/hindrances encountered in the world.
Whilst some people have been disabled by a previous illness we should not assume that they are now ill. However, a medically-dominated approach may lead to hope for a 'cure', which gets in the way of finding ways to overcome the barriers that they face. This approach is also criticised for taking power and control from the disabled individual and putting it in the hands of the medical expert. It is also criticised for focusing on what is 'wrong' with the disabled person at the expense of valuing their abilities.
Page updated 14 December 2001
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 113 8