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Glossary of Educational Inclusion and Disability Terms

Updated: Aug 8, 2022


Welcome to the Glossary of Educational Inclusion and Disability Terms presented by the Open Mind Social Innovation Lab (OMSIL). The definitions we have included are rooted in the ideology that all students have the right to fully participate and be included in their communities. References are provided at the end of the document. Thank you for reading this and striving to be informed.

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Able-bodied: Inappropriate term that refers to anyone without a disability, implying that people with disabilities are unable to use their body well.

Ableism: Prejudice and/or discrimination against people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

Access: The power, opportunity, permission, or right to come near or into contact with someone or something. It has been used to characterize the relationship between the disabled body and the physical environment since the middle to late twentieth century. More specifically, it refers to efforts—most prominent in the United States—to reform architecture and technology to address diverse human abilities.

Accessible: Readily usable by a particular individual with or without support, as in the cases of facilities, activities, or electronic resources.

Accommodation: An adjustment to make a program, facility, or resource accessible to a person with a disability.

Advocate: In the disability context, someone who may or may not identify as having a disability but speaks or intercedes for people with disabilities.

Afflicted with/Stricken with/Suffers from/Victim of: Inappropriate terms that carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life.

Ally: Someone belonging to a majority or privileged social group who works against the oppression of disadvantaged groups. An ally does not speak for that group or claim to know what is best for them; instead, they empower those within the community by amplifying their voices and ideas.

American Sign Language (ASL): A means of communication that uses hand gestures to represent letters and words, and the primary sign language used by people with hearing disability in the United States and Canada (devised in part by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet on the basis of sign language in France).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): United States legislation published in 1990 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, goverment, public accomodations, commerical facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. An individual with a disability is defined under the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): The practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to modify behavior. The practice is used most extensively in special education and in the treatment of autism. Despite its prominence, critics contend that the aim to make people “normal” is misguided and that the value of neurodiversity is preferred.

Asperger’s Syndrome: Previously considered a distinct form of autism defined by normal IQ and lack of early speech delay. Today, individuals with these traits are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Although it is no longer used in new cases, many people who were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s continue to use it as a marker of community and personal identity.

Assistive Technology: Assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities which enable people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by enhancing or modifying interactions with the technology needed to accomplish such tasks.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD): A condition that can make it hard for a person to sit still, control behavior and pay attention. Children with AD/HD are sometimes eligible for special education services under IDEA’s “other health impairment” disability category.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): An integrated system of components used to enhance communication by temporarily or permanently compensating for the impairment of individuals with communication disabilities.

Autism (Medical Model): A neurological and developmental condition involving a wide range of delays, difficulties, and differences related to social interaction, communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviors.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): A plan that targets a student’s undesirable behaviors with interventions that are linked to the functions of the behavior; each intervention specifically addresses a measurable, clearly-stated targeted behavior. A BIP can include prevention strategies or replacement behaviors.

Bias: A form of prejudice that results from our tendency and needs to classify individuals into categories.

Blindness: The legal status of a person with corrected vision that has a visual acuity of 20/200 or higher, or a range of peripheral vision under 20 degrees.

Braille: System of printing/writing for people who are blind – consists of raised

dots that can be interpreted by touch, each dot or group of dots representing a

letter, numeral, or punctuation mark.

Brain-Computer Interface (BCI): A computer-based system that acquires brain signals, analyzes them, and translates them into commands that are relayed to an output device to carry out a desired action.

Cerebral Palsy: A functional disorder caused by damage to a child’s brain during pregnancy, delivery, or shortly after birth. Cerebral Palsy is characterized by one or more movement disorders, such as spasticity (tight limb muscles), purposeless movements, rigidity (severe form of spasticity), or a lack of balance. People with cerebral palsy may also experience seizures, speech, hearing and/or visual impairments, and/or mental retardation.

Closed Captioning (CC): An on-screen system that allows people with a hearing disability to view video with spoken words written across the bottom of the screen.

Communication: The transmission or exchange of information, knowledge or ideas. In recent years, technologies and techniques of communication associated with disability are extending the notion of transmission of information beyond the sense of two people speaking. Disability studies have concerned themselves with forms of alternative and augmentative communication.

Communication Disability: Any visual, hearing, or speech difficulties that limit

a person’s ability to communicate.

Community of Practice: A pedagogical framework in which the collaboration of educators, paraeducators, parents, therapists, and students form a community for the purpose of accomplishing common goals.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD): A 2006 human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations intended to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.

Curriculum-Based Assessment (CBA): A continuous assessment that involves periodic monitoring of a student’s daily performance and progress through the curriculum.

Deafness: A total or partial inability to hear, which can be genetic or also acquired through disease, most commonly from meningitis in childhood or rubella in a woman during pregnancy.

Developmental Disability: A long lasting cognitive disability occurring before age 22 that limits one or more major life activities (self-care, independent living, learning, mobility, etc.), and is likely to continue indefinitely.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association offering language and standard criteria for classification of mental disorders. The DSM is used by clinicians, researchers, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, the legal system, and policy makers. The DSM is in it’s 5th edition, published in 2013.

Digital Divide: The gaps in access to information and communications technology (ICT) between individuals, groups, countries and areas. The digital divide affects people with disabilities more than any other group, since they face accessibility problems ranging from a lack of training, physical barriers, the lack of assistive computer technology and inaccessible design.

Disability: The result of the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers. Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, when in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Discrimination: Act of making a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit.

Diversity: Socially, it refers to the wide range of identities, including things like race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, veteran status, physical appearance, etc. It also involves different ideas, perspectives, and values.

Down Syndrome: A chromosomal condition (trisomy 21) caused by the presence of one extra chromosome, and characterized by delayed physical and mental development, and often identifiable by certain physical characteristics, such as a round face, slanting eyes, and a small stature.

Epilepsy: A physical condition that occurs when there is a sudden, brief disturbance in the function of the brain, and alters an individual's consciousness, movements or actions. Most individuals with epilepsy can reduce or eliminate the risk of seizures through the regular use of appropriate medication.

Equity: Fairness and justice that is distinguished from equality: Whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances. The process is ongoing, requiring us to identify and overcome intentional and unintentional barriers arising from bias or systemic structures.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Special education services that are publicly funded, meet state standards, include an appropriate preschool through secondary school in accordance with individualized education programs (IEPs).

Functional Model of Disability: Disability derives from an individual’s impairments or deficits that renders them incapable to perform a number of functional activities, such as moving, breathing, working, or living independently. The functional model originates from a legislative context and is reflected in the language of the Social Security Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.

General Education (GE): Education designed to develop learners’ general knowledge, skills, and competencies and literacy and numeracy skills, often to prepare students for more advanced educational programs or to lay the foundation for lifelong learning.

Handicap: Any obstacle that decreases a person’s opportunity for success (e.g., discriminatory practices, inaccessible buildings/public places/transportation, insufficient insurance/training/resources, negative attitudes).

Health: A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Hearing Impairment (HI): An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Identity-first Language: Referring to someone with a disability with their disability placed before their name, in contrast to person-first language. Identity-first language can be preferable when a person embraces their identity, and has gained popularity in specific communities like autistic and deaf people. The best practice is to ask a person how they would like to be referred whenever possible.

Impairments: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. Disability is created when social or cultural meaning is attached to an impairment and hinders their equal participation in society.

Inclusion: An organizational effort to make different groups or individuals culturally and socially accepted, welcomed, and treated equally.

Inclusionism: An ideology that posits the proper educational context for students with disabilities is the general classroom. Inclusionists argue for inclusion into general education based on social advantages like positive peer modeling and greater achievement in areas like language, behavior, flexibility, friendship relations, and prosocial acts, as well as greater academic achievement. Inclusionism is rooted in the beliefs that diversity is expected and valued, labeling is socially constructed and harmful, and inclusive settings are in the best interest of all students.

Inclusive Education: Educational setting where all students are full and accepted members of their school community, in the same classrooms whenever appropriate.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP): A document detailing the personalized educational goals and supports for students who receive special education services.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): 1975 act that mandates the provision of a free and appropriate public school education for eligible students ages 3–21.

Informed Consent: The provision of adequate information to allow for a person to make an educated decision about participation in a medical intervention, which may include facilitating the potential subject’s understanding of the information and giving them the opportunity to ask questions and consider whether they should voluntarily participate. In the context of presuming competence, health professionals should attempt to obtain informed consent from a person before redirecting themselves to the person’s responsible party.

Intellectual Disability (ID): Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing simultaneously with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Intelligence Quotient (IQ): A standard measure of intelligence considering the ratio between an individual’s “mental” age determined by assessments and chronological age. IQ tests have been historically criticized for being racist, sexist, and classist, and should be interpreted with caution.

Intersectionality: A social construct that recognizes the fluid diversity of identities that a person can hold such as gender, race, class, religion, professional status, marital status, socioeconomic status, etc.

Learning Disability (LD): A cognitive impairment in comprehension or in using language, spoken or written, that manifests itself in a person’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations (e.g., Dyslexia, Dysnomia, Dysgraphia).

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The idea that children with disabilities should be educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent that is appropriate for their needs and abilities.

Medical Model of Disability: Disability derives from a disease, trauma, or health condition that impairs or disrupts physiological or cognitive functioning, conceptualized as a condition or deficit that should be cured through treatment or intervention.

Meltdown: A sudden, intense emotional release caused by a buildup of overwhelming anxiety, emotion, or sensory experiences. Meltdowns and tantrums are fundamentally different in that a tantrum is an attempt to manipulate, while a meltdown is outside the person’s control.

Mental Illness: An illness or impairment that has significant psychological or behavioral manifestations, is associated with painful or distressing symptoms and impairs an individual’s level of functioning in certain areas of life (e.g., Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Bipolar disorder, Obsession-Compulsion, Schizophrenia).

Minority: Literally meaning a smaller number, this term has been defined in the context of 20th century civil rights campaigns as a group of people that are discriminated against in their society. For disability activists and scholars, defining disabled people as a minority group similar to African Americans, women, and others has been a means to claim civil rights protections, define a more cohesive and empowered group identity, counter the medical model of disability, and advance the scholarship and academic legitimacy of disability studies.

Mobility Impairment: An impairment in movement ranging from gross motor skills such as walking to fine motor movement involving manipulation of objects by hand.

Multiple Disabilities: Having two or more disabilities, such as being blind and deaf simultaneously.

Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS): An integrated, comprehensive educational framework that focuses on state standards, core instruction, differentiation, and the alignment of systems necessary for students’ academic, behavioral, and social success.

Neurodiversity: The concept that conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia are not the signs of a defective brain but the result of natural variation in the human genome. Atypical thinking styles are recognized as valuable sources of insight, creativity and innovation.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): An anxiety disorder that presents itself

as recurrent, persistent obsessions or compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive

ideas, thoughts or images while compulsions are repetitive behaviours or

mental acts that person feels they must perform.

Occupational Therapist (OT): A professional who treats patients with injuries, illnesses or disabilities through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD): A psychological condition presenting

itself as an ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile, defiant and deliberately

subversive behaviour toward authority figures / systems of authority which

goes beyond the bounds of normal childhood behaviour.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR): The mechanical or electronic conversion

of images of typewritten or printed text into machine-encoded text.

Paraeducator: An individual who provides instructional or related support to students under the direction and supervision of a certified teacher. In the last two decades, the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators in inclusive schools have reached new levels of importance due to higher expectations for students, an increased focus on inclusive practices, and attention to closing the achievement gap.

Paralysis: Condition involving loss of sensation or of muscle function.

Person-first Language: Referring to someone with a disability with their disability placed after their name, in contrast to identity-first language. Person-first language is popular because it reduces unnecessary focus on a person’s disability and avoids dehumanizing terms like schizophrenic, paraplegic, spastic, or vegetable. The best practice is to ask a person how they would like to be referred whenever possible.

Physical Disability: One or more physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities (e.g., seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, or caring for oneself).

Physical Therapist (PT): Professionals who help people who have injuries or illnesses improve their movement and manage their pain. They are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): A type of augmentative alternative communication (AAC) originally developed for children with autism. The primary purpose of PECS is to teach individuals with autism to initiate communication. Individuals are taught to initiate by handing a picture to a communication partner in exchange for a desired item.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): An evidence-based three-tiered framework for improving and integrating all of the data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day. Researched outcomes include improved academic performance, social-emotional competence, and teacher efficacy, and reduced bullying behaviors, drug abuse, and exclusionary discipline.

Privilege: Exclusive access or availability to material and immaterial resources based on the membership to a dominant social group.

Prosthesis: An artificial device used to replace a missing body part, such as a limb, tooth, eye or heart valve.

Quality of Life (QoL): An individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns.

Rehabilitation: A process that enables persons with disabilities to interact with their environments and maintain optimal physical, sensory, intellectual, psychological, and social function levels. In common usage, rehabilitation provides persons with disabilities the tools they need to attain independence and self-determination.

Response to intervention (RTI): A process used by educators to help students who are struggling with a skill or lesson. Teachers use interventions for any student that needs support to succeed in a classroom. The RTI framework is generally thought of as a three tiered pyramid with varying levels of support.

Section 504: Part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which states that organizations that receive federal funding are legally obligated to provide students with disabilities equal benefits, services, and opportunities.

Self Advocacy: The ability to communicate with others to acquire information and to recruit help in meeting personal needs and goals.

Social Model of Disability: Disability derives from focusing on the barriers people face interacting with their social, physical, economic, and political environments, conceptualizing disability as a social construct wherein people with certain impairments are perceived as different or abnormal.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): A government program that provides assistance in the United States to people with disabilities. To qualify for benefits, individuals or their family members must be “insured” by working long enough, recently enough, and paid social security taxes on their earnings.

Special Education: Specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including instruction in the classroom, home, hospitals and institutions, and other settings, as well as physical education, speech-language pathology services, travel training, and vocational education.

Speech Generating Device (SGD): Technology that provides an individual who has a severe speech impairment with the ability to meet his or her functional, speaking needs through digitized speech using pre recorded messages or synthesized speech output.

Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP): Also known as a speech therapist, a professional who diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing disorders.

Stigma: The disapproval and disadvantage that is attached to people who are seen as different, often contributing to the transformation of impairment into disability. Stigma affects employment, social recognition, educational opportunities, friendship and sex, housing, and freedom from violence. Stigma in Greek means to prick or to puncture, and the word originally referred to a sharp instrument used to brand or cut slaves or criminals. Today, the term is more abstract and refers to social forms of stigma—the discredit or dishonor that attaches to a wide range of human variation.

Stimming: Repetitive sounds, words, or movements (i.e., spinning, rocking, humming) that create sensory input as a means of self-soothing.

Student Learning Overview (SLO): Individualized educational reports similar to an IEP that includes grades, present levels, state standards, updates from specialists, and goals. SLOs are updated three times a year, once a quarter.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): A government program that provides assistance in the United States to adults and children with disabilities who have limited income or resources.

Support Needs: A psychological construct referring to the pattern and intensity of support necessary for a person to participate in activities linked with normative human functioning. The intensity of support is often categorized into “high” and “low” support needs.

Teacher Efficacy: A teacher’s beliefs in their capacity to positively influence student learning and achievement.

Theory of Mind (ToM): The ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge to oneself and others. It is about understanding that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.

Tokenism: Presence without meaningful participation. For example, a superficial invitation for the participation of members of a certain socially oppressed group, who are expected to speak for the whole group without giving this person a real opportunity to speak for themselves.

Tourette Syndrome: A genetic, neurological disorder characterized by repetitious, involuntary body movements and uncontrollable vocal sounds.

Traditionalism: An ideology that posits the proper social and academic educational context for students with disabilities is the special education classroom. Traditionalists argue for special education because of elements like small class size, specially trained teachers, auxiliary services, functional skills curricula, and individualized instructional materials and procedures. Traditionalism is rooted in the beliefs that diversity is problematic, labels are objective and fair, and that students with disabilities best learn through specialized instruction that can’t occur in a general classroom.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

United Nations (UN): An international organization founded in 1945 after World War II by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.

Universal Design: The design and composition of environments, products, and services so that they can be accessed, understood, and fully used by all people regardless of characteristics like age, size, or ability.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL): The design of instructional materials and

activities that make learning achievable by students with a wide variety of

abilities and disabilities.

Visual Impairment (VI): An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

World Health Organization (WHO): An agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. Founded in 1948, WHO’s objective is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.


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