What Is Physical Impairment?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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A physical impairment is generally defined as any type of disorder, injury, disability, or handicap that impedes normal physical functioning. There are numerous causes of physical impairment, ranging from inherited and acquired diseases, to congenital defects, to injuries. Examples of physical impairment can include brain damage sustained after head trauma, arthritis, paralysis, spina bifida, and physical deformities.

Living with an impairment can be more or less difficult, depending on the nature and extent of the impairment. Some people who suffer from an impairment need assistance just to meet their own basic needs, such as cooking and bathing. People on the other side of the spectrum may be limited in the tasks they can perform, but are generally independent and able to look after themselves.

Physicians have identified several categories of physical impairment. Vision impairment, for instance, usually affects the eyes, and can lead to partial or total loss of vision. Injuries to or diseases of the spinal column can lead to spinal cord impairments, which can result in permanent paralysis and other mobility problems, although mobility problems can also occur due to other types of physical impairment, such as arthritis. Hearing impairment affects the ears and can lead to reduced or absent hearing. Brain injury or disease can lead to impairments of the brain, though these are usually classified differently from cognitive impairment, which includes conditions that affect how the brain functions in absence of any disease or trauma.


Disabilities can occur prior to, during, or after birth. Factors that can contribute to congenital defects include a mother's exposure to toxins during pregnancy, illness in the mother during pregnancy, or hereditary deformities and diseases. Physical impairment can occur during birth if infants are somehow deprived of oxygen during labor, if they're injured by accident, or if they're born too soon. After the child is born, any number of mishaps or diseases could cause a permanent physical impairment.

Many people who suffer from a physical impairment manage to live normal lives. An impairment is not necessarily considered a disability, but is generally defined as a situation in which some part of the body does not function normally. A disability, on the other hand, is considered to exist when the person is unable to live normally, commensurate with others of his peer group. An adult whose physical impairment stops him from bathing and feeding himself, for instance, is considered disabled. An adult whose impairment requires adaptive equipment, like crutches, or hampers certain types of movement and activities, but is nevertheless able to live independently and normally, is not typically considered disabled.


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