Physical impairment

Whilst the term Physical Disability is commonly used in social and health care, the term Physical Impairment is the preferred term of many disabled people. The difference between impairment and disability is defined within the social model of disability – described below by Colin Barnes, himself a disabled man and founder and director of the Centre for Disability Studies at Leeds University.

The Social Model of Disability: Myths and Misconceptions.

“Now it’s important to point out that the social model of disability is, first and foremost, a focus on the environmental and social barriers which exclude disabled people from mainstream society. It makes a clear distinction between impairment and disability; the former refers to biological characteristics of the body and the mind, and the latter to society’s failure to address the needs of disabled people. The social model, therefore, is a concerted attempt to focus on those aspects of disabled people’s lives which can and should be changed.

This is not a denial of the importance of impairment, appropriate medical intervention or, indeed, discussions of these experiences. Nor is it an assertion that once the barriers have been removed the problems associated with certain types of impairment will disappear -they won’t.”

(This article first appeared in Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People’s Journal ‘Coalition’ August 1996:, pp. 27-33). Colin Barnes.

Bearing this in mind, it is important to consider what we need to know about different types of physical impairment. There are local and national associations for most types of impairment, which will provide information and advice to both service users and professionals. In addition the National Centre for Independent Living provide information and advice on a range of matters related to both impairment and disability. However, when researching information it is important to consider that the effect of the impairment is specific to the individual.

“It’s worth remembering too that impairment related experiences are unique to the individual; often people with very similar conditions experience them in very different ways. What is ‘painful’ or depressing for one person may be less so for another. People can only talk of their own experiences of impairment. This makes any notion of a ‘social’ model of impairment extremely difficult, if not impossible, to conceive.” (Barnes 1996)

What is important for us to understand is what the barriers are that the person faces. It will also be important to discuss if there are any specific social care needs relating to the experience of the impairment. This is where the social model fits comfortably with the FACS criteria which states clearly that the impact of a situation will be different for different people and so the risks faced by individuals will also be different.