Disability and handicap are not synonyms. / 14 January 2016 / 14 January 2016

It may seem obvious, but a good communications campaign must be concerned primarily with how words and concepts are understood, and cannot be too careful about that. While confusion between terms can be innocuous and anything but harmful, it is also capable of having a bitter impact on people’s lives and on public opinion. The last International Day of Persons with Disabilities was held on 3 December 2015, as it is on that date every year, in accordance with the Global Disability Action Plan adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982. Beyond that recurrence though, we have to ask ourselves what does it mean to be disabled? Who is disabled? What does handicap mean?

Indeed, as we know, words are important and, at least in the specific case of the terms “disabled” and “handicapped”, it is important to reflect on differences in meaning. While disability is understood as a personally experienced disadvantage, handicap refers to the social disadvantage of a person with a disability. In other words, a disability can be the result of an accident or illness, where a handicap is caused by the social environment that creates disadvantages for individuals. To clarify, Mirella Zanobini writes: “the person with a disability does not identify with his problem, hence the preference for the disabled over the term handicapped. The handicap is not an illness, but the repercussions of a harmful event on a person’s life can become one. Handicap, moreover, is not to be confused with the more generic condition of socio-cultural disadvantage or dysfunction, i.e. with a situation deriving from purely social factors. The dual connotation – biological and social – of the handicap emerges clearly from this distinction”.

In her entry for the Dictionary of Economy and Finance (Treccani, 2012), Laura Pagani offers the following definition for the term disability: ‘The condition of those affected by lasting physical, mental, intellectual or sensory damage for whom interaction with various sorts of barriers can hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal footing with others”. Treccani’s Italian Encyclopedia (1933) explains that “the word handicap indicated those horse races whose participants were arranged at varying distances (trotters) or with varying loads (gallopers) that were graduated in relation in such a way as to give them an equal chance at winning […] Hence the connotation of “difficulty” the terms assumes in almost every language”.

The issue therefore is not one of being politically correct or not. It is that “disability” and “handicap” are not synonyms. Suffice it to glance at the official documents of some international organisations such as the WHO and the UN to recognise this substantive difference in meaning which, in turn, has even deeper consequences for national legislation and for the society, which should ensure the most thorough elimination possible of handicaps for disabled persons.

Giampiero Griffo, who has been a member of the Italian delegation to the UN ad hoc Committee, explains that the Convention definitively declares, “it is not I who moves in a wheelchair that cannot board a bus, but the transport company that must make accessible busses available. The society must ensure the full enjoyment of rights to all, independent of anyone’s functional diversity. [… ] the Convention obliges States to understand how a person functions and what solutions to adopt in order to sustain and improve that functioning. Every time that these functional features are neglected the society creates a barrier and denies participation and, in the final analysis, violates a human right”.

Even a brief reflection on the true meaning of “disability” and “handicap” is helpful to realise that the experience of the handicap is not, in the first place, necessarily anchored to a monolithic and perpetually disabled identity and, secondly, does not solely regard disabled bodies, but also the persons who interact with those bodies and the society in general.
(See: “70 years of development in 70 seconds: Disability”)