An impairment is a loss of function or limited function (i.e. visual impairment, learning impairment).
A disability is an inability to perform one or more major life activities due to an impairment. These major life activities are self-care, full range of movement, use of senses, communication, learning/working, and social skills.
A handicap is an obstacle to performing an activity, something which gets in the way and lessens the person’s chances of success.
Things to consider:
A person may not be able to walk due to an impairment of mobility; however, if this person uses a wheelchair and is able to perform their daily activities, does that person in fact have a disability?
The person is not handicapped. For a person who uses a wheelchair, the staircase is the handicap. And if an elevator is installed then there is no handicap. It’s not a handicapped parking space or bathroom. It is a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, a wheelchair-accessible parking space.
Strive to use person-first language. The person is not the disability. Saying the child with autism is preferable to saying the autistic child. Say person with a disability rather than the disabled person.
People use wheelchairs; try not to use language that is restrictive such as wheelchair-bound.
Do not use the word retarded in your every day language. Certainly do not use it to describe a person with an intellectual impairment. When you use it to describe something or someone stupid or silly or ridiculous or annoying, recognize the connect between the old usage of the word and the modern usage. If/when it slips out, remind yourself. It’s not retarded, it’s stupid. The situation is not retarded, it’s annoying. Don’t be lazy; use your brain and use your words.
When you see someone with a visual impairment in public spaces, offer to help them. It can be scary to put yourself out there and offer help if you think the person will be offended by it, but more often than not the person will say, “No, thank you,” or, “yes, please.” And you will feel really good afterward. Every time I have helped a person with a visual impairment to arrive at their destination, I have felt immeasurable happiness that I was able to help them.
When you see a person with a visual impairment at a street corner about to cross the street, or walking in the subway, offer to help. And when you do, ask them where they are going. Then put your hand just above their elbow. Give them verbal prompting like, “We’re reaching the end of the stairs,” or “We’re turning left in a few moments.” Make conversation.
Above all, don’t assume. People are resilient. They have found amazing ways to deal with their impairments and disability, and I guarantee they would love to be asked about it.
The truth is, our natural response, as a society, when met with the unfamiliar, unexpected or unsettling is to avoid, to shun, to reject, to laugh. Examine these knee-jerk responses. Talk to people who are different. Make friends with them. Don’t assume they cannot do something because of how they look.
Society often responds negatively to people with disabilities and impairments because they are suddenly being faced with their own vulnerability, fragility, and mortality. Down syndrome is the result or one less or one extra chromosome. It is complete chance. Some people acquire an impairment or disability during childbirth. Some people acquire impairments even later in life. Sometimes as a result a car accident, or, hell, simply falling down could leave a person with an enormous life change. People age, and as they do they often develop illness and disease which present impairments and disabilities and handicaps. People are susceptible to acquiring impairments and disability by the mere action of living. And so…
That could be me, we think.
Therefore, since that could have been any of us, since that could be any of us, let us respond with kindness and empathy to those who are different, no matter the difference.
Recognize your able-bodied privilege, and strive to inform yourself on these issues. It could be you one day. Or it could be your daughter or son, your nephew or niece, your mother or father, your friends, your significant other.
Some disabilities are invisible. You very likely know someone with a disability, even if you do not know you do.
So, please, don’t assume. Offer help. Offer company. Offer yourself.