Printable VersionDISABILITY DEFINITIONS

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  • CMHC Systems - a guide to mental health, psychology, & psychiatry. CMHC Systems, a provider of information technology for healthcare and human services sponsors this extensive guide.
  • Disability Fact Sheets and Briefing Papers. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities has prepared fact sheets and briefing papers that you can view and/or download in either txt or pdf format. All NICHCY fact sheets are 1 page (double-sided) in length and cover the definition, incidence, characteristics, and educational implications of a particular disability. They also list helpful resources and organizations. NICHCY Briefing Papers are 16 pages in length and have a more in-depth description of the causes and treatment of the disability.
  • The Integrated Network of Disability Information & Education (INDIE) An extensive list of information and publications from the University of Toronto. Available in English & French. INDIE , is also the site of CanLearn Interactive, a comprehensive bilingual resource for learning information, products and services to support Canadians in pursuit of learning and career goals.
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) An extensive list of neurological information and publications that are free to download and use. The NINDS, is an agency of the U.S. Federal Government and a component of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service. It is the leading supporter of biomedical research on disorders of the brain and nervous system.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) A syndrome of learning and behavioral problems that affects concentration, impulse control, and attention. 

Autism  A developmental disability originating in infancy, characterized by staring at space, non response to sounds, and an apparent lack of interest in other people.  Children with autism do not understand common dangers, such as busy streets, yet some show above normal skill in isolated areas of mathematics and music.

Cerebral Palsy A group of disorders resulting from brain damage. Cerebral refers to the brain and palsy to a lack of control over muscles. Any combination of physical and mental status is possible. Symptoms range from slight awkwardness of gait to more unconscious movements and an inability to see, speak, or learn as people without disabilities do. Cerebral palsy is not always associated with mental retardation. 

Developmental disAbilities A severe, chronic set of functional limitations that result from any physical and/or mental impairment that manifests itself before age 22. 

Down's-syndrome Physical and intellectual development is slow in people who have Down's syndrome.  They will frequently have health related disorders such as heart defects and respiratory, vision, hearing and speech problems. 

Emotional disturbance. An inability or unwillingness to adjust to the problems and stresses of daily life. Such disabilities can cause people to react aggressively to, or withdraw from, situations rather than attempt to adjust to them.

Learning disAbility. A disorder in one or more of the basic physiological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written. The disorder can manifest itself in, for example, the ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, do mathematical calculations, etc. Even though their progress in these skills might be limited, people with learning disabilities may have average to above average intelligence. 

Mental retardation. People with mental retardation are limited in their ability to learn and are generally socially immature. Mental retardation is a condition, not a disease, manifested before age 21. It is important to realize that people with mental retardation have the same hopes and emotions as people without it. They learn, but at a slow pace.


Mild retardation. About 90 percent of people with mental retardation have mild retardation. They are capable of being educated and, as adults, given proper training, can work in competitive jobs, live independently, and be a part of daily community life.

Moderate retardation. People with moderate retardation are sometimes known as trainable mentally retarded people. They can learn to care for their personal needs and perform many useful tasks in the home or, as adults, in a sheltered workshop situation.

Profound retardation. People with physical disabilities and sever impairment in coordination and sensory development, making constant care necessary, have profound retardation. With special techniques, some can be taught useful simple tasks and can participate in some limited social activities. 

Multiple sclerosis. The chronic, progressive disease of the neurologic system affects important functions of daily living such as walking, talking, seeing, eating, tying a shoe, opening a door, etc. There is no known cure, and the cause has yet to be found. 

Physical disability. An impairment that hampers physical, vocational, or community activities. 

Post lingual hearing impairment. A loss of hearing after having developed speech (usually after reaching 6 years of age). People with these disabilities have some understandable speech or at least can make speech like sounds, might "sign," have a hearing aid, etc. 

Pre lingual hearing impairment. An impairment caused by being born deaf or losing hearing before acquiring speech or syntax. People with these disabilities make up 95 percent of the school age deaf population. 

Seizure disorders. Not a disease, but a malfunction of the manner in which cells of the brain release energy, characterized by sudden seizures involving muscle convulsions and partial or total loss of consciousness. It can sometimes be controlled through use of medication. 

Speech/language disorders. A communication disorder, such as stuttering, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. 

Spinal cord injury. Paralysis of parts of the body, usually the result of an accident. 

Tourette Syndrome. Tourette syndrome (TS) is an inherited, neurological disorder characterized by repeated involuntary movements and uncontrollable vocal (phonic) sounds called tics. In a few cases, such tics can include inappropriate words and phrases. 

Traumatic brain injury. An injury to the brain by an external physical force, resulting in the impairment of one or more of the following areas: speech, memory, attention, reasoning, judgment, problem solving, motor abilities, and psychosocial behavior. Impairments may be temporary or permanent. 

Visual impairments.  An inability to see. An individual who is legally blind can see no more at a distance of 20 feet than a person without visual impairment can see at a distance of 200 feet.

 Functional blindness is generally defined as the inability to read newspaper type even with the best possible corrective lenses, or to perform ordinary tasks necessary to daily living. 


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This page was last edited 11/15/09