Difference Wiki

Handicapped vs. Disabled: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on January 7, 2024
"Handicapped" often refers to a disadvantage in specific situations, while "disabled" denotes a broader impairment in functioning.

Key Differences

"Handicapped" originally related to barriers faced in environments or activities, implying a disadvantage in certain contexts. "Disabled," on the other hand, broadly refers to physical or mental conditions that limit a person's movements, senses, or activities. The term "disabled" encompasses a wider range of conditions than "handicapped."
The term "handicapped" can sometimes imply a challenge or obstacle external to the individual, such as societal or physical barriers. In contrast, "disabled" is generally used to describe a person's intrinsic condition, which could be physical, cognitive, or sensory in nature.
In modern usage, "handicapped" is increasingly seen as outdated and less preferred, primarily due to its historical associations with incapacity and dependence. "Disabled," conversely, is more widely accepted and used, emphasizing the aspect of having a disability without negative connotations.
The application of "handicapped" is often specific, such as "handicapped parking," focusing on the accommodation aspect. "Disabled" is used more holistically, recognizing the individual's condition as part of their identity, as seen in phrases like "disabled community."
The evolution of language has seen "handicapped" being replaced by "disabled" in legal and formal contexts, reflecting a shift towards more respectful and empowering terminology. "Disabled" is aligned with the social model of disability, which focuses on societal changes to accommodate individuals, rather than viewing the condition as a personal deficit.

Comparison Chart

Contextual Use

Often external barriers or disadvantages
Intrinsic physical or mental impairments

Modern Usage

Less preferred, potentially outdated
More commonly accepted and used


Can imply incapacity or dependence
Emphasizes identity and capability


Specific accommodations or situations
Broad range of conditions and identities

Language Evolution

Being replaced by "disabled" in formal contexts
Aligned with social model of disability

Handicapped and Disabled Definitions


Limited by environmental or situational obstacles.
The uneven terrain handicapped the hikers with mobility issues.


Having a disability affecting various life aspects.
The new policy aims to support disabled workers in the workplace.


Facing a disadvantage in a specific context.
The absence of a ramp left wheelchair users handicapped at the event.


Restricted in capabilities due to a condition.
As a disabled artist, she creates using adaptive tools.


Hindered by societal or physical barriers.
Handicapped by outdated policies, she struggled to access the building.


Having a physical or mental condition that limits activities.
Disabled individuals often advocate for more accessible public spaces.


Disadvantaged in competition or comparison.
The team was handicapped by their lack of experience.


Impaired in movement, senses, or activities.
The disabled athlete competed in the Paralympics.


Disadvantaged due to external factors.
Without sign language interpreters, deaf attendees were handicapped at the meeting.


Living with a long-term physical or mental impairment.
Disabled since birth, he champions disability rights.


Physically or mentally disabled
A pool equipped for handicapped swimmers.


Having become or having been rendered inoperative
A disabled vehicle.


Intended for people who have a disability
A handicapped parking space.


Having a disability
A disabled veteran.


People who have a disability considered as a group. Often used with the.


(used with a pl. verb) People with physical or mental impairments, considered as a group. rights of the disabled.


Simple past tense and past participle of handicap


Made incapable of use or action.


Having a handicap.


Having a disability.


(derogatory) Limited by an impediment of some kind.


(legal) Legally disqualified.


(India) A disabled person.


(nonstandard) One who is disabled. often used collectively as the disabled, but sometimes also singular


Suffering from a handicap (in senses 4 or 5); disabled; at a disadvantage.


Simple past tense and past participle of disable


Incapacitated by injury or illness


Injured so as to be unable to function; as, disabled veterans.


Unable to function at normal capacity.


People who are crippled or otherwise physically handicapped;
Technology to help the elderly and the disabled


Incapacitated by injury or illness


So badly injured as to be unable to continue;
Disabled veterans


Are there any legal differences between the terms?

Yes, legal and formal documents increasingly use "disabled" to align with current standards and respectful language.

Is it important to ask individuals their preference?

Yes, it's always respectful to ask individuals how they prefer to be referred to regarding their abilities.

Is "handicapped" an acceptable term to use?

It's less preferred due to its outdated connotations; "disabled" is more commonly accepted.

Does "disabled" only refer to physical impairments?

No, it includes physical, cognitive, sensory, and other types of impairments.

Do these terms have different implications in employment?

Yes, "disabled" is commonly used in employment to refer to individuals with disabilities, focusing on accommodation and inclusion.

Do these terms have different connotations in healthcare?

In healthcare, "disabled" is generally used, focusing on the medical and functional aspects of the condition.

Is there a global consensus on these terms?

No, different cultures and countries may have varying preferences and connotations for these terms.

Can "handicapped" and "disabled" be used interchangeably?

Not always, as "handicapped" often refers to external barriers, while "disabled" is broader and more intrinsic.

Why is "disabled" preferred over "handicapped"?

"Disabled" is aligned with the social model of disability, focusing on societal accommodation and empowerment.

How has the public perception of these terms changed?

Public perception has shifted towards preferring "disabled," viewing it as more respectful and inclusive.

Does the context change the appropriateness of these terms?

Yes, context matters, as "handicapped" might be used in specific situations like parking, while "disabled" is more general.

How do educational systems view these terms?

Educational systems increasingly prefer "disabled," focusing on inclusion and equal opportunities.

Can "handicapped" be seen as offensive?

Some people may find it offensive due to its historical connotations of incapacity.

Are there better alternatives to these terms?

Terms like "person with a disability" are often recommended for being person-first and respectful.

Does age affect the perception of these terms?

Older generations might be more familiar with "handicapped," but there's a general trend towards "disabled."

How do these terms relate to identity?

"Disabled" is often seen as an identity marker within the disability community, whereas "handicapped" is less so.

Can usage of these terms impact social policies?

Yes, the terms used can influence how social policies are shaped and implemented regarding disability.

How do these terms relate to accessibility?

"Disabled" is more commonly associated with the broader concept of accessibility in various environments.

Are there advocacy groups for these terms?

Yes, there are advocacy groups that focus on rights and inclusion for disabled individuals.

Is it important to stay updated on terminology?

Yes, as language evolves, it's important to stay informed about respectful and accurate terminology in disability discourse.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

Trending Comparisons

Popular Comparisons

New Comparisons