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A person is said to have a disability if they find it difficult or impossible to perform one or more activities of everyday living.

Until recently, little distinction was made between the physical or mental condition of a person and the difficulties they faced. However, over the past 20 years the social model of disability has been developed and has changed this perception. This model distinguishes between an impairment, meaning some ability is objectively less than average, and a deviation from the average. The latter is not defined by the person being better or worse than the mean, but rather is a problem due to either the attitude of society or the fact that standard facilities are based on the average (meaning there is a lack of tools and/or facilities).

For example, as recently as the 1960s, left-handedness was seen as an abnormality. In schools in the Western world, left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand and punished if they did not comply. By the 1980s, left-handedness was accepted as simply a difference, a physical characteristic. Yet if tools such as scissors and corkscrews are only available in their right-handed forms, a left-handed person finds themselves disabled: they are unable to perform certain tasks and must be assisted by another person.

Thus, in the social model of disability, the disability is caused by society and the physical environment. Someone who is unable to walk and needs a wheelchair has an impairment; however, the social exclusion they may experience (lack of accessible transport, no adapted public toilets, buildings which are inaccessible) is caused by their environment (and the social, political, and economic processes associated with the construction of that environment), not their physical condition.

The term accessibility, apart from having its general meaning, is in particular used to describe facilities or amenities to assist people with disabilities.

Discrimination of those disabled is sometimes termed ableism.

The term handicapped, in its origin, meant hand in cap, and had its origins in sport and gambling.

Some disabled persons apply the term tab for the "nondisabled", meaning "temporarily able-bodied".

Various attributive terms, such as "disabled", "blind", or "deaf", rather than "disabled persons", "blind persons", or "deaf persons", are considered objectionable by many persons because the former labeling seems to characterize a person by a single attribute. However, others use these terms as markers of pride in their identity, much like groups delineated by such titles as "Women", "Gay", and "Black". Still others prefer the term "differently-abled", while others see this particular term as an example of political correctness gone too far.

Many famous, creative and inspirational persons have lived with one or more disabilities while accomplishing remarkable things, including American president Franklin Roosevelt (impaired movement as the result of polio), classical composer Beethoven (deaf in later years), musician Stevie Wonder (blind), Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen (lost left arm in a car accident), civil rights activist Helen Keller (deaf and blind), Stephen Hawking (uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak), and many others.

Correct usage of terms

A person who has a physical or intellectual problem is said to be impaired; e.g., a person who has short-sightedness has a vision impariment.

If a person's impairment means they are unable to function in the same way as most people in that particular area, they are considered disabled; e.g., a person who has glaucoma doesn't have a full field of vision as most people and therefore has a visual disability.

If a person's disability means that they do not have access to the same things as the majority of people, they are considered handicapped; e.g., a blind person cannot see and is visually handicapped.

The above terms may not seem clear enough and may even seem to say the same thing. They are, however, very strict definitions when explained further.

If we take the person with short-sightedness, we can see that, with the aid of prescription glasses, they are no longer handicapped, for they can see properly with this aid. A person in a wheelchair is only handicapped whenever buildings do not have ramps or proper access for them. A person with six fingers on each hand may be physically impaired due to a birth defect, but this does not translate into a disability if they are still able to use their fingers as well as anyone else. Impairment refers specifically to the area of a medically defined defect. Disability refers to the impairment's effects in making the person unable to use their body in the same way as an able-bodied person. Handicap refers to the impairment's effects in making the person unable to do things that able-bodied people can do normally. In the latter case, the use of aids (like glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, ramps, etc) prevents the disabled person from being handicapped in certain areas.

See also

Further reading