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© Cambridge University Press 2007. The concept of disability Disability is a broad and sometimes contentious term. It provides an apparently neutral method of describing limitations and difficulties that individuals may have of functioning in their environment. However to individuals with disabilities, and to organizations that represent them, the term ‘disability’ appears unnecessarily negative with implications of deviance and abnormality. A plethora of approaches to disability span those that at one extreme define disability as inherent properties of individuals, through to the other extreme that considers disability a harmful social construction which labels and oppresses particular minorities. Fundamental changes to how we view disability are revealed in the evolution of the World Health Organization’s thinking about health and disease. In 1980 it produced what was at the time considered a progressive and enlightened International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH). The ICIDH schema defines impairment as any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. Impairment therefore refers to failure at the level of organs or systems of the body, with impairment usually arising from disease. Disability refers to any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner considered normal. The emphasis is therefore on things that individuals cannot do. Handicap is any disadvantage for an individual, resulting from impairment or disability that limits the fulfilment of a role for that individual. It refers to the social disadvantages that may follow from disease.

Original publication





Book title

Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine, Second Edition

Publication Date



256 - 260