Difference Between Disability & Handicap

By Mary Jane Freeman - Updated June 19, 2017
Businessman in wheelchair sitting with colleague in office

The terms handicap and disability are often used interchangeably; however, they have distinctly different meanings, particularly when used by the medical community. Disability describes the mental or physical limitation a person has, and handicap refers to the disadvantage she experiences because of it. In the legal sense, disability is the more commonly used term, with a definition that often differs from the one used by medical professionals.

Medical Definition of Disability and Handicap

The medical community tends to define disability and handicap differently than the legal community. According to the World Health Organization, whose definitions are most widely used among medical professionals, disability is defined as a restriction or inability to perform an activity in a manner or within a range considered normal for a human being. This lack of function is caused by an impairment, which the WHO defines as an abnormality or loss of body function that is mental or physical in nature and can be temporary or permanent. An example of a disability would be a child's inability to stand or walk due to a form of cerebral palsy that stiffens and tightens his legs. Handicap, on the other hand, is defined as a disadvantage that limits or prevents someone from fulfilling a role considered normal based on such factors as sex, age, culture and society. For example, in the case of the child with cerebral palsy, as he gets older, his handicap will be an inability to participate in certain sports and activities considered normal for children of similar age.

Discrimination and Disability

One of the most comprehensive laws addressing disabilities is the Americans With Disabilities Act. A person has a disability as defined by the ADA if he has either a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his major life activities, such as walking, hearing or seeing, has a record of such impairment or has been discriminated against because others perceived him as having a mental or physical impairment, regardless of whether the impairment actually exists or limits a major life activity. The ADA protects people with mental and physical disabilities from discrimination in various aspects of everyday life, including employment, education, public accommodations and transportation. The ADA does not use the term handicap.

Social Security and Disability

When it comes to being eligible for Social Security benefits due to having a disability, the definition of disability changes again. The Social Security Administration considers a person disabled if he can no longer do the work he used to do, has a medical condition that prevents him from adjusting to other types of work, and the disability is expected to continue for a minimum of one year or until death. The SSA only pays benefits for total disability, not partial or temporary disability, and also doesn't use the term handicap.

When Handicap Definition Used

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of a person's protected class, including persons with disabilities. However, the language of the FHA does not include a definition for disability like other federal laws. Instead, it uses the term handicap, which it defines as a person with either a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits his major life activities, has a record of having such impairment, or is perceived by others as having such an impairment. Notably, the FHA's definition of handicap is virtually identical to the ADA's definition of disability. Additionally, although the language of the law specifically uses the term handicap, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development use the term disability when discussing the law on their websites.

About the Author

Based on the West Coast, Mary Jane Freeman has been writing professionally since 1994, specializing in the topics of business and law. Freeman's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including LegalZoom, Essence, Reuters and Chicago Sun-Times. Freeman holds a Master of Science in public policy and management and Juris Doctor. Freeman is self-employed and works as a policy analyst and legal consultant.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article