Difference Between Handicapped and Disabled

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 05, 2023


Difference Between Handicapped and Disabled

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People often use the words handicapped and disabled interchangeably; however, that is offensive to others, as the words mean different things. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, but this is not something one should be ignorant about. The ongoing debate of whether one should use people-first or identity-first language when speaking about an individual with limitations gets bad enough. People should not add fuel to the fire by considering disability as synonymous with handicap.

Disability is a result of an impairment that prevents people from performing an activity in a certain manner. For example, a reading impairment prevents a student from reading and comprehending the academic material. Therefore, the student has a learning disability. However, the student still has the capacity to learn in other ways (he can listen to taped lectures, podcasts, or books on audiotapes). The student is not handicapped in this scenario.

On the other hand, if the alternate ways of learning are not made available to the student, he will fail his classes. That is, the disability handicaps him – he cannot graduate like his fellow students. He is prevented from fulfilling his role as a student. The handicapped individual cannot function in what society considers a normal way (normalcy is overrated; why not accept people as they are?). For example, the individual cannot play certain sports that children his age usually play.

Handicapped Vs. Disabled

All handicapped persons have a disability; however, not all disabled persons are handicapped. That is, a disability handicaps a person when it prevents them from performing what society considers ‘normal’ roles in life or limits their working capacity. Moreover, the word handicapped is no longer used; people see handicap as a severe disability.

Difference Between Handicapped And Disabled In Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonHandicappedDisabled
CauseA person with a disability becomes a handicapped person due to the environment’s restrictions.An impairment causes a person to have a disability.
DefinitionHandicap is not a person’s inherent characteristic. A person with a handicap suffers due to his adverse relationship with the environment. A blind person becomes handicapped only when assistive technology is not provided to that person to overcome the reading disability.Disability is a person’s characteristic. It limits them from doing an activity the normal/standard way.
DescriptionHandicapped persons are described as suffering from a disadvantage that prevents them from fulfilling a normal role.Disabled persons are described as suffering from an inability to perform certain tasks.
PreferenceMost people prefer to use the term disabled or severely disabled rather than handicapped, as they find the latter offensive and demeaning.Generally, people find being called a disabled person less offensive (though it still strikes a nerve at times).
UsageThe term handicap has been around since the 1500s.People began using the term disability instead of handicapped in the 1990s.

What Is Handicapped?

According to the various definitions out there, handicapped refers to a person who cannot fulfill a normal role in their life. This inability may be due to society’s or the environment’s restrictions. Most disabilities can be overcome with the help of assistive technology, but some cannot be overcome – that is why the disability is said to handicap the individual.

Sometimes, the distinction between disabled and handicapped is not clear-cut. Blind people have a visual impairment; this is termed as a disability because people can learn braille to learn in a different way. Some blind people have become doctors! However, they cannot become surgeons, meaning the disability handicaps them.

The term handicapped is no longer an acceptable term when speaking about people with disabilities. However, some institutions still use the word to differentiate its substantial effect on people’s lives compared to minor disabilities. Ironically, handicapped was the preferred term in the 1970s, as people felt that words like crippled, lame, etc. to be insulting. The viewpoint that people are not defective by nature but have been handed a burden to carry emerged.

A decade later, the term handicapped too became offensive because people associated it with a beggar with a cap. Therefore, disabled persons chose the term disability to represent the bad hand they had been dealt rather than the word handicapped. People perceive words differently as years go by, and so the language they use changes. Some opine that even the term disability is becoming outdated. Negative connotations will arise no matter what word one chooses. Therefore, it is better to stick with terms people with disabilities choose to describe themselves.

In sports and games, handicapping refers to the advantages given to players so that the chances for any player winning are equal. In psychology, self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy; people fear their self-esteem would suffer due to potential failure and use it to justify why they avoid undertaking an activity.

What Is Disabled?

In a nutshell, disability is either a medical condition requiring specialized treatment (medical model) or a limitation the society imposes on individuals who differ in their abilities from the majority of the population (social model). Those who advocate the medical model strive to find the disabilities’ root cause (disease, trauma, or other health problems) and a way to cure them. Deafness, blindness, mobility impairments, and so on are examples of disabilities. Assistive technology (any device or modification that helps people overcome their disability) is doing a great job helping disabled persons worldwide.

According to the social model, disability is not a biological difference but rather an idea the society constructed that prevents individuals from fully integrating into society. The economic model depicts disability as a reduced ability to work, and the tragedy model views disabled persons as victims of circumstances. The just-world theory is one of the negative theories surrounding disability. It portrays disabled persons as individuals deserving of their disabilities, and a passing observer is not obligated to help them (come on, this is so cruel.).

Another dispute that shows no signs of simmering down is whether to use person-first language (saying a person with a disability) or identity-first language (saying a disabled person) when speaking about disabilities. The style of address varies between countries and communities. Some like to focus on their identity and how it affects their life, while others want to be acknowledged as a person first before delving into their disabilities.

Types Of Disabilities

Disabilities may be cognitive, developmental, or sensory.

Developmental Disability

People with developmental disabilities have mental or physical impairments that arose before they became adults. Cerebral Palsy and Autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, and so on are some common developmental disabilities. Autistic spectrum disorders cause communication problems such as difficulty in understanding others’ feelings and body language, affected speech, and repetitive behavior (remember the film Adam, starring Hugh Dancy? It perfectly showcases the difficulties people with Asperger’s syndrome face.).

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects attention span, self-control, and emotional regulation. The Percy Jackson series may have made ADHD look cool (it is comforting to know even demigods have ADHD) but in reality, it is far more frustrating to deal with. Cerebral palsy affects people’s ability to move with balance and maintain posture (the character Christopher Diaz suffers from Cerebral Palsy in the TV Series 911.).

Cognitive Disability

Intellectual disabilities, acquired brain injuries, and specific learning disorders are the types of cognitive disability. Specific learning disorder includes several disorders that make it challenging for a person to learn in a standard manner. Dyslexia is a well-known cognitive disability. This type of disability has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence level.

People with specific learning disorders merely need a different learning strategy. So don’t label people stupid or lazy because they do not do well at school. Who knows, they may have a disability that went unrecognized. The film Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth) does a stellar job showing the challenges people with dyslexia face.

Simply put, acquired brain injuries are brain damage suffered after birth. A traumatic or non-traumatic brain injury (such as stroke, drug abuse, etc.) causes ABI.

Sensory Disability

The inability to bear bright lights, fear of unexpected touching, increased sensitivity to background noises, and so on indicate that a person has a sensory disability. The cause of a sensory disorder or disability may be congenital, genetic, or metabolic. Temporary sensory disabilities may be due to physical injuries. Sensory disorders encompass deafness and blindness, too.

Sub-Types Of Various Disabilities

Physical Disability

It is a sub-type of developmental and sensory disabilities. A physical disability limits the person’s mobility, dexterity, and other self-care activities. Visual impairments (ranging from minor injuries to total blindness), hearing loss (partial or complete loss of hearing), mobility impairment (loss or impairment of limbs), etc. are physical disabilities. This type of disability may be prenatal, perinatal, or postnatal.

Prenatal disabilities are present from before birth due to either genetic disorders or accidents/health problems the mother had during pregnancy. Perinatal disabilities occur during the few weeks before birth and up to four weeks after birth. Premature birth, oxygen deprivation, brain damage during birth, etc. can cause these disabilities. Postnatal disabilities occur after birth. They may occur due to injuries, infections, or illnesses.

Intellectual Disability

It is a subtype of Cognitive and Developmental disabilities. A person is intellectually disabled if their IQ is lower than 70 and is deficient in adaptive behaviors (behaviors that allow people to be successful while encountering the least conflict). An intellectual disability may be syndromic or non-syndromic. An individual with the former disability exhibits certain behavioral signs and symptoms, whereas a person with the latter disability does not show any sign of abnormality.

2-3% of the world population suffers from intellectual disabilities, and 30 – 50% of the cases are non-syndromic intellectual disabilities. However, the cause of intellectual disabilities is not always clear. Though 25% of the cases are due to genetic disorders, 5% due to heredity, and some due to iodine deficiency, problems during pregnancy, or diseases, many cases have unknown causes.

Lesser Known Types

Invisible, hidden, or non-visible disabilities are not immediately recognizable. Epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia are examples of invisible disorders. Episodic disability is another lesser-known type. People with this type of disability have periods of clarity or wellness depending upon the specific health condition. Bipolar disorder and arthritis are well-known examples of episodic disabilities.

Main Difference Between Handicapped And Disabled (In Points)

  • A handicapped person is prevented from achieving something in life that most people accomplish quite easily. However, a person with a disability can find ways to overcome his limitations and achieve what they want in life.
  • The inability to walk is a disability, whereas the inability to become a basketball player is a handicap (Paralympics does help with the latter problem, but it is only meant for players with disabilities. The person still does not have the opportunity to compete with a person with no disabilities in a fair game.).
  • A disability can be prevented from becoming a handicap if proper assistance is provided to a disabled person. However, a handicap (a disability that substantially affects a person’s life) can only be managed and cannot be prevented from hampering the handicapped individual.
  • Generally, people can get away with addressing someone as a disabled person instead of a person with a disability (however, it is polite to use the latter term). On the other hand, people cannot escape an individual’s wrath if they address them as a handicapped person (people get touchy when addressed as such, and rightfully so!).
  • A person with a handicap is believed to bear a heavier burden than a person with a disability.


Ultimately, disability refers to the inability to perform a certain activity in the accepted manner, whereas handicap refers to the inability to accomplish something most others can. People with disabilities or handicaps are, in the end people, too. Differentiating them from others and stating that they are not normal is unacceptable. Yes, these people require assistance, but that does not mean they are weak. After all, who does not need a little assistance now and then in their life? In fact, some disabled people are capable of accomplishing things ‘normal’ people can only dream of.


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  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handicap
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  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_disability
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_disability
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_disability
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Developmental_disability
  • https://mapleservices.com.au/types-of-sensory-disabilities-and-impairment/


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"Difference Between Handicapped and Disabled." Diffzy.com, 2023. Wed. 27 Sep. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-handicapped-and-disabled>.

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