Difference Between Impairment, Disability, Developmental Delay & Handicap

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  • 0:00 Recommendations & Suggestions
  • 1:20 Impairments
  • 1:59 Disabilities
  • 2:45 Developmental Delay,…
  • 4:11 Handicaps
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Many people use the terms 'impairment', 'disability', 'developmental delay' and 'handicap' interchangeably. Though these terms are related, they do not mean the same thing. This lesson explains the differences in these terms.

Recommendations & Suggestions

Chris is a 12-year-old who has a condition called cerebral palsy. Specifically, his form of cerebral palsy is called moderate spastic diplegia, which means his leg muscles continually contract, making his legs stiff and difficult to bend or relax. Chris walks with a slow, jerky motion and cannot run. He wears braces on his legs to pull his feet into a flexed position and allow walking. He also takes several medications to alleviate his symptoms.

Does Chris have impairment, a disability, a developmental delay or a handicap? While many people use these terms interchangeably, they mean different things, although the differences might seem subtle at first. Each term refers to a situation in which a person experiences a condition that keeps them from functioning as ably as an average person.

Generally speaking, impairment is the actual condition, while a disability is the restriction of ability caused by the condition. A developmental delay is an interruption in a child's development without a known cause. Finally, a handicap refers to the way impairment restricts a person's functioning.

Let's take a closer look at each of these terms.


The term impairment refers to a person's actual abnormality or condition. Impairment is the specific problem with the person's body. The World Health Organization defines impairment as 'any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function'.

Chris has impairment. His impairment is his inability to flex or relax his stiff legs. Because he has cerebral palsy, his impairment is not expected to get better or significantly worse. Though there are measures that can be taken to aid Chris, his impairment is considered to be permanent and irreversible.

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