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Disability Dictionary

Learn words that will help you communicate about disability

Is there a disability-related term you are unsure of? Simply want to learn more about disability? We have got you covered with this list of terms! Also have a look at our accessibility dictionary.




Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism comes in many forms, be it ideas stereotypes, attitudes, or practices.


Accessibility is a broad term which refers to the quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability. This includes equality of opportunity, equality of experience, and equality of participation and inclusion. Accessibility exists when barriers to the participation of persons with disabilities are removed. Read our accessibility dictionary and browse our accessibility tool kit to learn more and promote inclusion.

Affirmative model of disability

People who use the affirmative model of disability view their impairment positively. Having an impairment is not the problem, the problem lies with the social barriers that impede their development, participation and flourishing. The affirmative model is strongly connected to the social model of disability as it aims to reaffirm the person with a disability as a valuable human being who can contribute to society.

Disabled People’s Movement

The Disabled People’s Movement and the formal and informal advocacy and activism of disabled people globally have created significant change in the social, cultural, political and legal understandings of disability. Since the 1890s, groups of people with disabilities have campaigned against oppression, and for equal rights and recognition. In the 1960s and 1970s the Disabled People’s Movement followed other social movements to campaign internationally against exclusion, marginalization and stigmatization.

Community living

Community living refers to adults with intellectual disabilities being empowered to develop their capacity to live, learn, work and participate in all aspects of living in the community life, rather than being isolated, institutionalized, or denied opportunities to thrive in the community

Disabling humor 

Humour which demeans or insults disability and disabled person, serving to further disable them in society

Disability humor

Non-demeaning humour that highlights the unique experiences of disabled persons, including the misconceptions they must deal with

Identity-first language 

The attempt of a candidate to get elected. For example, 'disabled person' instead of 'person with a disability'. Contrast with person-first language.

Medical model of disability

This model links a diagnosis to an individual's physical body, maintaining that the disability is a physical condition within them and not enforced by society. It contrasts with the social model of disability. 

Open employment 

Having a job in the general labour market, rather than being segregated because of a disability. It contrasts with sheltered employment. 

Person-first language 

A person you can vote for to be your elected representative. For example 'person with disabilities' instead of 'disabled person'. Contrast with identity-first language.


A disabled person, particularly one with an intellectual disability, who advocates for themselves and takes an active role in speaking up about what is important to them

Sheltered employment 

An organization or environment that employs people with disabilities separately from others. It contrasts with open employment.

Social model of disability

The social model of disability proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society. It contrasts with the medical model of disability.

Condand Char

Conditions and characteristics


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. ALS is often called Lou Gehrig's disease, after the baseball player who was diagnosed with it. ALS often begins with muscle twitching and weakness in a limb, or slurred speech. Eventually, ALS affects control of the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. 


Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away (degenerate) and die. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia — a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person's ability to function independently. Named after Alois Alzheimer.

Angelman syndrome

Angelman syndrome is a rare genetic and neurological condition characterized by developmental delay and learning disabilities, very limited speech, inability to coordinate voluntary movements (ataxia), and a behavioral pattern characterized by a happy disposition and unprovoked episodes of laughter and smiling. Named after Harry Angelman.

Apert syndrome

Apert syndrome is a genetic disease in which the seams between the skull bones close earlier than normal. This affects the shape of the head and face. Apert syndrome can be passed down through families (inherited). The syndrome is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait, which means that only one parent needs to pass on the faulty gene for a child to have the condition. Named after Eugene Apert.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. Affected persons have difficulty with social interactions and nonverbal communication, and often exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors. Compared with those affected by other forms of ASD, however, those with Asperger syndrome do not have significant delays or difficulties in language or cognitive development. Named after Hans Asperger.


Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Related terms: Asperger's, echolalia, stim,  

Cerebral palsy

A condition marked by impaired muscle coordination (spastic paralysis) and/or other disabilities, typically caused by damage to the brain before or at birth

Cystic fibrosis 

Cystic fibrosis is a serious genetic condition that causes severe damage to the respiratory and digestive systems. This damage often results from a buildup of thick, sticky mucus in the organs. The most commonly affected organs include the lungs, pancreas, liver, and intestines.

Developmental disability

Developmental disabilities are a group of life-long conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas . These conditions begin during development in youth, with examples including Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Developmental disability encompasses intellectual disability, but is a broader term.


Disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

Disability is therefore a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which they live. 

Down syndrome 

Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that is associated with intellectual disability, a characteristic facial appearance that includes slanted eyes, along with short stature. All affected individuals experience cognitive delays, but the intellectual disability is usually mild to moderate, and persons with Down syndrome often have engaging and happy personalities. Named after John Langdon Down.


The precise repetition, or echoing, of words and sounds, often done by children with autism. Immediate echolalia is when the repetition occurs immediately, while delayed echolalia is when the repetition occurs hours or even days after hearing the original words or sounds.


Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. A person is diagnosed with epilepsy if they have two unprovoked seizures (or one unprovoked seizure with the likelihood of more) that were not caused by some known and reversible medical condition like alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person with an FASD has a mix of these problems.

Fragile X syndrome

Fragile X syndrome is a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Usually, males are more severely affected by this disorder than females. Affected individuals usually have delayed development of speech and language by age 2.


The term hydrocephalus is derived from the Greek words "hydro" meaning water and "cephalus" meaning head. The primary characteristic is excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain. This fluid is cerebrospinal fluid— a clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The excessive accumulation of this fluid results in an abnormal widening of spaces in the brain called ventricles, resulting in a potentially harmful pressure on the tissues of the brain.

Intellectual disability

Intellectual disability is a term used to describe a person with certain limitations in cognitive functioning and other skills, including communication and self-care. Intellectual disability usually originate before the age of 18 and are a type of developmental disability. Some examples of intellectual disabilities are:

  • Apert syndrome

  • Down syndrome

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome disorder

  • Fragile X syndrome

  • Phenylketonuria

  • Prader-Willi syndrome

  • Turner syndrome

  • Williams syndrome

Learning disability

A learning disability is condition characterized by difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age, especially when intelligence levels are average or above average overall, and the learning disability is not associated with a physical impairment (such as a hearing impairment that makes it difficult to hear instructions)

Marfan syndrome 

Marfan syndrome is an inherited disorder that affects connective tissue. Marfan syndrome most commonly affects the heart, eyes, blood vessels and skeleton. People with Marfan syndrome are usually tall and thin with disproportionately long arms, legs, fingers and toes. The damage caused by Marfan syndrome can be mild or severe. If the heart is affected, the condition can become life-threatening.

Multiple sclerosis 

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, typically progressive disease involving damage to the sheaths of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, whose symptoms may include numbness, impairment of speech and of muscular coordination, blurred vision, and severe fatigue.

Muscular dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases causing progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. In muscular dystrophy, abnormal genes interfere with the production of proteins needed to form healthy muscle.

There are many kinds of muscular dystrophy. Symptoms usually surface in childhood and can include movement difficulties, muscle pain and stiffness, and delayed growth.

  • Duchenne muscular dystrophy is the most common form, with symptoms usually occurring in childhood

  • Becker muscular dystrophy is a less common form, with symptoms similar to those of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but milder and slower in progression. Symptoms generally begin in the teens but might not occur until the mid-20s or later.

Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement. Named after James Parkinson.


Phenylketonuria (pronounced fen-l-kee-toh-NOOR-ee-uh), or PKU, is an inherited disorder that that can cause intellectual and developmental disabilities, seizures, and behavioural problems if untreated. In PKU, the body can't process part of a protein called phenylalanine, which exists in all foods containing protein. If the phenylalanine level gets too high, the brain can become damaged.

Prader-Willi syndrome

Prader-Willi syndrome is a complex genetic condition that affects many parts of the body. In infancy, this condition is characterized by weak muscle tone, feeding difficulties, poor growth, and delayed development. Beginning in childhood, affected individuals develop an insatiable appetite, which leads to chronic overeating and obesity. Named after Andrea Prader and Heinrich Willi.


A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. It can cause changes in your behavior, movements or feelings, and in levels of consciousness. There are many types of seizures, which range in severity. Seizure types vary by where and how they begin in the brain., and most seizures last from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. The 2 main types of seizures are:

  • Focal (or partial) seizures, which occur when seizure activity is limited to a part of one brain hemisphere. There is a site, or a focus, in the brain where the seizure begins.

  • Generalized seizures, which occur when there is widespread seizure activity in the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Spina bifida

Spina bifida is a birth condition where the bones in the vertebral column do not fully cover the spinal cord, leaving it exposed. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and it can affect physical and intellectual development.


A repetitive, idiosyncratic motion such as rubbing one's hands or shaking one's body. Stimming is often used by autistic persons as a therapeutic motion to help reduce anxiety.


A stroke happens when blood stops flowing to any part of your brain, damaging brain cells. The effects of a stroke depend on the part of the brain that was damaged and the amount of damage done. There are 3 main types of strokes:

  • Hemorrhagic strokes occur when an artery in the brain breaks open. The interrupted blood flow causes damage to your brain. High blood pressure weakens arteries over time and is a major cause of hemorrhagic stroke. 

  • Ischemic strokes are caused by a blockage or clot in a blood vessel in your brain. The blockage can be caused when a substance called plaque builds up on the inside wall of an artery.

  • Transient ischemic attack strokes occur due to a small clot that briefly blocks an artery. It is sometimes called a mini-stroke or warning stroke. TIA symptoms usually last less than an hour, and may only last a few minutes. TIAs are an important warning that a more serious stroke may occur soon. They are a medical emergency – call 9-1-1.

Turner syndrome

Turner syndrome, a condition that affects only females, results when one of the X chromosomes (sex chromosomes) is missing or partially missing. Common characteristics include a short and webbed neck, low-set ears, low hairline at the back of the neck, short stature, and swollen hands and feet are seen at birth.

Williams syndrome

Williams syndrome is a genetic condition characterized by distinctive facial features, such as a broad forehead, short nose, and full cheeks; mild to moderate intellectual disability despite impressive social and verbal skills;  and an outgoing personality, in which the person with the syndrome interacts readily with strangers and generally appears happy. Named after JCP Williams.

Services and practices


An accommodation is a plan or step that makes sure that a person is treated equally. For example, a child has a learning disability. The school hires an aid to help the child to learn what the other children are learning, or arranges for the student to use a particular type of assistive learning technology.

Assistive (or adaptive) technology

Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. Examples of assistive technology include:

  • Augmentative and alternative communication devices help with communication. Examples include alphabet or symbol boards, e-readers, and text-to-speech programs

  • Technology to help people with mobility and sensory impairments use computers, such as voice recognition programs, screen readers, or sip and puff programs which allow persons to control a computer with their mouth

  • Learning aids, including phonetic spelling software, talking calculators, and writing tablets

  • Personal mobility devices, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or crutches

  • Physical modifications in the built environment, including ramps, curb cuts, grab bars, and wider doorways to enable access to buildings

International Symbol of Access

Also known as the wheelchair symbol, the International Access Symbol is used to indicate accessibility, as well as to designate reserved spots for persons with disabilities. The symbol was first designed in 1968 by Denmark's Susanne Koefoed.

Music therapy

Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music is used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.

Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, clients' abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of their lives. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is a health profession in which therapists help people who are ill or have a disability learn to manage their daily activities like dressing, eating, working, and playing

Respite services

Services in which someone will temporarily provide care for someone who relies on a caregiver, so that the primary caregivers can have a break

Service dog

A service dog is specially trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples of tasks may include:

  • Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation

  • Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people

  • Pulling a wheelchair.

  • Assisting an individual during a seizure

  • Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone

  • Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities

  • Preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors

White cane/white stick

A device used by many people who are blind or visually impaired. A white cane primarily allows its user to scan their surroundings for obstacles or orientation marks, but is also helpful for onlookers in identifying the user as blind or visually impaired and taking appropriate care

BC Disability Tool Box Page

Services and Practice
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