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Soc Sci Med. 1998 Jul;47(1):59-66.

Social disadvantage in the international classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicap.

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  • 1WHO Collaborating Centre (CCOMS), Paris, France.


The revision process of the international classification of impairments, disabilities and handicaps (ICIDH) is now in progress. Major changes are being considered which question one of the main fields, that of handicap, or social disadvantage. The scope of these changes goes beyond simple technical adjustments. It reaches the level where fundamental positions are adopted regarding the mainspring of public health policies. The purpose of this article is to review and discuss the main criticisms that have appeared in the literature about the dimension of handicap, including a study of the consequences that may result from keeping this dimension or from leaving it out. We suggest that the definition of handicap as a disadvantage has been overlooked, so that discussion has mainly taken place about the environment. Our opinion is that each criticism is based upon the emphasis given to a choice of strategy for preventing or reducing disablement. For some experts, the emphasis is on health care. For others, it is on social change. We share this interest in strategy. This is why we suggest that the conceptual framework is meant only for description, that it does not and should not include choices of strategy. We argue that it is the best way to promote appropriate description and therefore appropriate choice of strategies. Finally, we state that social disadvantage is a major dimension of the consequences of disorders and related problems, and should therefore remain in the framework, in order to provide appropriate information for better choices in strategy.

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