Difference Between Disability and Impairment

The image of a person sitting in a wheelchair comes to our mind whenever we hear the word impairment or disability. This is because of the similarities and overlap between the two terms and also because of the way we have been led to believe. Disability is a rather generic term that includes impairment and refers to lack of ability or restriction of ability to perform a task to the level that is considered normal for other human beings. Impairment is a related concept that talks about abnormality or loss of structure or functionality of one or more body parts. There are many more differences between disability and impairment that will be highlighted in this article.


When a person finds it difficult to perform activities of daily life to a level that is considered normal for most human beings, the person is described as having a disability. Disability also refers to a fact that an individual might be unable to take care of himself and might require help and assistance of others to perform daily activities such as getting dressed up or bathing. We are conditioned to perceive disability depending upon our social and cultural experiences. Most of us find it awkward to deal with a person with a disability, and we are unsure as to how we should react when we encounter an individual who is different from the rest of us in the ways he walks, sees or reacts to stimuli. Disability is the inability to perform a task to the near normal level, and as such, it is a non-medical concept.

Disability can be a result of impairment such as visual or hearing impairment. It could be because of activity limitations that are the difficulties experienced by people in performing certain activities, or it could be a problem of participation in situations in life. Thus, it becomes clear that disability is a problem bigger than just impairment.


Most of us think we know what impairment means. We talk about visually impaired and hearing impaired when we see or encounter people having serious vision or listening problems. According to World Health Organization, impairment is a loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function. This makes clear that impairment is more of a medical issue as it deals with problems in body parts that lead to disability such as a deformity in the leg or foot that does not allow a man to walk properly. It could be blindness or the inability to hear or any other impairment that is by birth or developed because of an accident. There is also speech impairment that results in a disability that is easily recognized when the person speaks or tries to communicate.

What is the difference between Disability and Impairment?

• Disability is a generic term whereas impairment is specific.

• Disability is at a non-medical level whereas impairment is at a medical level.

• Impairment is an abnormality in the structure or function of an organ.

• Impairment takes place at the level of the organ or tissue whereas disability could be the difficulty experienced by the person in performing daily activities to a level that is considered normal for all human beings.