The difference between a handicap as defined by the WHO and a disability as it has been defined here is that handicap employs a different concept of normality. A handicap results from impairment or disability, but it is a disadvantage that results from the consequent inability to fulfill roles that are normal, where what is normal is determined by social and cultural factors. Some activities, such as walking and seeing, are normal for human beings regardless of cultural expectations. If one cannot perform them, one is disabled in that respect. Other activities are normal for people in a particular type of society but are not expected or needed in others. If a person cannot perform them, that person will be handicapped in one society but not in another. Reading and using a telephone are normal activities in some societies but not in others, and so the inability to perform them, for example, because one is dyslexic or deaf, is not culturally abnormal and thus is not a handicap.

However, humanly normal activities may not always be clearly distinguishable from culturally normal activities. Often people perform their normal human activities by carrying out certain social roles that are dictated by their cultural and physical environment. Susan Wendell (1996) points out that a woman with impaired vigor might be able to obtain drinking water in the way that is normal in western Canada (turning on a tap) but unable to obtain it in the way that is normal in rural Kenya (walking a long distance to a well twice daily). Consequently, the distinction between a disability and a handicap is not always sharp.

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