Glossary of Terms

There are many words and terms used in a discussion about disability in the U.S. Some of these words and terms are listed here, along with a brief explanation.



Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA): A discipline devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior through skill acquisition and the reduction of problematic behavior in a measurable and accountable manner. Often used interchangeably with behavior modification.

Affordable Care Act (ACA): Colloquially known as Obamacare, the comprehensive health care reform law enacted in March 2010. [i]

Accessible: In the case of a facility, readily usable by a particular individual; in the case of a program or activity, presented or provided in such a way that a particular individual can participate, with or without auxiliary aid(s); in the case of electronic resources, accessible with or without assistive computer technology.

Access barriers: Any obstruction that prevents people with disabilities from using standard facilities, equipment, and resources.

Accessible web design: Creating web pages according to universal design principles to eliminate or reduce barriers, including those that affect people with disabilities.

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

Adaptive technology: Hardware or software products that provide access to a computer that is otherwise inaccessible to an individual with a disability.

Activities for Daily Living (ADL):  Routine activities that people tend do every day without needing assistance. There are six basic ADLs: eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring (walking) and continence. A person’s ability to perform ADLs is important for determining what type of long-term care such as nursing-home care or in-home care as well as the health coverage the person needs such as Medicare, Medicaid or long-term care insurance.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): A comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, public accommodations and services operated by private entities, and telecommunications.

American Sign Language (ASL): A visually perceived language based on articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the body. It also uses facial expressions and movements of the body to convey information. ASL is the dominant signed language in North America, but is not a universal language; many other countries have their own forms of sign language.

Assistive Technology: Technology that is used to assist a person with a disability.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A spectrum of conditions that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Learning, thinking, and problem- solving capabilities range from gifted to severely impaired. Also now includes several different conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: Autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger Syndrome.


Captioning: Text that is included with video presentations or broadcasts that enable people with hearing impairments have access to the audio portion of the material.

Center for Independent Living (CIL): Non residential places of living that are operated by people with disabilities. CILs work to promote leadership and remove barriers to independence for disabled individuals. They also provide services including advocacy, peer counseling, transition services for youth, independent living skills training, and referrals.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):  The international human rights treaty of the United Nations that protects the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. 167 countries have ratified CRPD, but the United States has only signed the treaty. Article 24 of CRPD affirms the right of persons with disabilities to inclusive education “on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live”.[ii]

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 27: Article in the 2007 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that pertains specifically to work and employment. Article 27 ensures the right of persons with disabilities to work on equal basis with their non-disabled peers.


Department of Health and Human Services (DHS): cabinet level department of US federal government responsible for providing for effective health and human services and fostering advances in medicine, public health, and social services. [iii]

Department of Labor (DOL): a cabinet level department of the US federal government tasked with the role ‘to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.’ [iv]

Developmental Disability (DD): A group of conditions resulting from impairments in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. About one in six children in the U.S. have one or more developmental disabilities or other developmental delays.

Disability: Physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.

Dog Guide: The dog guide (“seeing eye” and “guide dog” are brand names) undergoes extensive specialized training to assist and alert persons who are blind, deaf and hard of hearing. It must learn basic obedience, to lead rather than “heel,” to avoid obstacles (including overhead objects), and to “work” in stores and elevators, on various forms of public transportation, and when crossing streets, etc. Dog guides are legally permitted to accompany their owners into buildings including all Federal and State buildings, hotels, motels, restaurants, grocery stores, airplanes, trains, and buses. To refuse to allow a dog guide entry to any of these places is a violation of the law.


Employment First: A national movement centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life. [v]

Employment Identification Number (EIN): Nine-digit number assigned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to business entities operating in the United States for the purposes of identification.

Enclave Model: A small group of people with disabilities (generally 5-8) who are  trained and supervised among employees who are not disabled at the host company’s work site. Persons in the enclave work as a team at a single work site in a community business or industry. 

Entrepreneur: The state of working for yourself, rather than an employer.

Essential Job Functions: The fundamental job duties of the employment position that the individual with a disability holds or desires. The term essential functions does not include marginal functions of the position.


Fading: The gradual reduction in supervision and support as the Supported Employee gains skills and independence. Fading begins once the person has mastered parts of their job, whether instruction is provided by a job coach or a co-worker.

Finger Spelling: When no sign exists for a thought or concept, the word can be spelled out using the American manual alphabet. It is also used for titles, proper name, and convenience.

Full Time Employment (FTE): An employee who works full time, employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week, or 130 hours of service per month.


Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA): A piece of US legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions to safeguard medical information. [vi]

Human Rights Model of Disability: A model of disability which holds that barriers within communities and societies, rather than personal impairments, exclude persons with disabilities from access to inclusive education.[vii]


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): A U.S. federal law that governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.[viii]

Individualized Education Plan (IEP): A plan or program that is developed to ensure that a child who has a disability receives proper specialized instruction and services in elementary or secondary education.[ix]

Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE): A plan for employment created by the state Vocational Rehabilitation program and the supported employment program participant which requires signatures of both individuals to be valid. [x]

Integrated Setting: A setting typically found in the community in which applicants or eligible individuals interact with non-disabled individuals, other than non-disabled individuals who are providing services to those applicants or eligible individuals, to the same extent that non-disabled individuals in comparable positions interact with other persons.

Intellectual Disabilities (ID): A disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning which includes reasoning, learning, and problem solving AND adaptive behavior which includes a range of everyday social and practical skills. Sometimes clustered with Developmental Disabilities to be known as I/DD.

International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF): A classification of health and health related domains that measures health and disability at both the individual and population levels.


Job Carving: The process of breaking down jobs into their key components and assigning them to employees based on efficient company operations and customization to meet the skills of the employee with a disability. This process results in either job restructuring or job creation.


Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The federal law that ensures students with disabilities receive their education, to the highest level possible, with non-disabled peers and are not confined to special education classes unless absolutely necessary.


Mainstreaming, inclusion: The inclusion of people with disabilities, with or without special accommodations, in programs, activities, and facilities with their non-disabled peers.

Major life activities: A term defined by the ADA as “Functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning, working, and participating in community activities”.[xi]

Marrakesh VIP Treaty: An international treaty that allows for copyright exceptions that make it easier to create accessible versions of books and other copyrighted material for individuals who are blind, visually impaired, or print disabled. Kenya has signed the treaty,  Tanzania and Uganda have not signed it yet.[xii]

Medicaid: US social healthcare program that provides health coverage to millions of Americans, including eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities. Medicaid is administered by states, according to federal requirements. The program is funded jointly by states and the federal government. [xiii]

Mobility Impairment: Disability that affects movement ranging from gross motor skills such as walking to a fine motor movement involving manipulation of objects by hand. In addition to people who are born with a disability, this group includes a large amount of people whose condition is related to age or accidents.


Neurotypical (NT):  A term used to describe someone not on the Autism Spectrum.


Office for Civil Rights (OCR): A sub-agency within the U.S. Department of Education that is responsible for protecting civil rights in programs that receive federal assistance and ensuring equal access to education by preventing discrimination.[xiv]

Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP): The only non-regulatory federal agency that promotes policies and coordinates with employers and all levels of government to increase workplace success for people with disabilities. [xv]

Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO): A federal government agency that helps ensure  employment laws are enforced by handling complaints of discrimination to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information or reprisal.[xvi]

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS): A program of the US Department of Education, OSERS works to provide equal opportunity and access to education, employment, and community living for all disabled Americans. [xvii]

Olmstead Decision: Supreme Court decision affirming the right of individuals with disabilities to live in their community. [xviii]


Physical or Mental Impairment: According to the ADA, any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems:

  • Neurological;
  • Musculoskeletal;
  • Special sense organs;
  • Respiratory, including speech organs;
  • Cardiovascular;
  • Reproductive;
  • Digestive;
  • Genitourinary;
  • Hemic and Lymphatic;
  • Skin;
  • Endocrine;
  • Any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning [xix]

Public Accommodations: Entities that must comply with title III. The term includes facilities whose operations affect commerce and fall within at least one of 12 categories. [xx]


Qualified Individual with a Disability: According to the ADA, an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable modification to rules, policies, or practices, the removal of architectural, communication, or transportation barriers, or the provision of auxiliary aids and services, meets the essential eligibility requirements for the receipt of services or the participation in programs or activates provided by a public entity.[xxi]


Reasonable Accommodations: A modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things usually are done that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy an equal employment opportunity. Reasonable accommodation is a key nondiscrimination requirement of the ADA under Title I.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973: A U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs that are run by federal agencies; programs that receive federal financial assistance; in federal employment; and in the employment practices of federal contractors. [xxii]

Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA): A federal government agency that oversees grant programs that help individuals with disabilities obtain employment and live more independently.[xxiii]


Screen Reader: Software used to echo text on a computer screen to audio output, often used by people who are blind, with visual impairments or with learning disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: A part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires that the needs of students with disabilities be met as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against students based upon disability.

Sheltered Workshops: Refers to an organization or environment that employs people with disabilities separately from others.

Sighted Guide: A sighted guide is a person who physically assists an individual who is blind, only when that person accepts assistance. When serving as a sighted guide for an individual who is blind, let the person take your arm (right or left depending on the person’s preference), walk about one half-step ahead. He or she will follow the motion of your body. When showing a person who is blind to a chair, place his/her hand on the back of the chair. At times, it may also be helpful to provide a physical description of the physical environment surrounding them and the route being taken.

Social Security Administration (SSA): Governmental body responsible for assigning social security numbers, administering retirement, overseeing disability insurance programs, and instituting SSI and SSDI. [xxiv]

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): A payroll tax funded Social Security program that provides benefits for disabled individuals who are unable to work before retirement age (65) but have accumulated work credits prior. [xxv]

Specific Learning Disability: Disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in difficulties listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing mathematical calculations. Frequent limitations include hyperactivity, distractibility, emotional instability, visual and/or auditory perception difficulties and/or motor limitations, depending on the type(s) of learning disability.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): A federal income supplement program funded by general (not social security) tax revenue. Provides income assistance to meet basic needs for the elderly and disabled. [xxvi]

Supported Employment: Competitive work that offers ongoing support services in integrated settings for individuals with more significant disabilities. The employment outcome is attained by providing intensive supported employment services and is maintained through the provision of extended services. The level of employment participation may be full- or part-time based on the individual’s employment factors (strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, career interests and informed choice).


Undue Hardship: The term “undue hardship” means significant difficulty or expense in, or resulting form, the provision of an accommodation.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23: Article of 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’

Universal Design: An approach to designing education that seeks to make all aspects of the educational experience more inclusive for everyone, including individuals with disabilities.[xxvii]


The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA): This piece of legislation prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against protected veterans, and requires these employers to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain these veterans. [xxviii]

Visual Alarms: A flashing light that is placed into a building or facility alarm system. If single station audible alarms are provided then single station visual alarm signals should also be provided.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR): Preparing any person with a disability for useful and purposeful employment through on-the-job training and use of rehabilitative equipment.

Vocational Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 (VR 504): This specific section of the VR forbids discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities by any and all federal agencies including programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance or are conducted by a federal agency.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA): A piece of legislation that is designed to strengthen and improve US public workforce system and help get Americans, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, into high-quality jobs and careers and help employers hire and retain skilled workers. [xxix]

[i] About the Affordable Care Act. Department of Health and Human Services.

[ii] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development.

[iii]  About HHS. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[iv]  DOL: Who We Are And What We Do. U.S. Department of Labor.

[v]  APSE Statement on Employment First. Association of People Supporting EmploymentFirst.

[vi]  HIPAA: Health Information Privacy. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[vii] General Comment No. 4 (2016) Article 24: Right to Inclusive Education. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 2 September 2016.

[viii] History: Twenty-Five Years of Progress in Educating Children with Disabilities through IDEA, U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

[ix] “Rehabilitation Act of 1973.”

[x] IPE: What Is the Individualized Plan for Employment? Vision Aware.

[xi] Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Public Law 101-336. 108th Congress, 2nd Session (July 26, 1990).

[xii] World Intellectual Property Organization (O).

[xiii]  Medicaid: Medicaid Policy and Program Topics. Medicaid.

[xiv] “About OCR.” U.S. Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights.

[xv]  ODEP: About ODEP. United States Department of Labor.

[xvi] “Office of Equal Opportunity.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

[xvii] “About OSERS.” U.S. Department of Education.

[xviii]  Olmstead: Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

[xix] Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Public Law 101-336. 108th Congress, 2nd Session (July 26, 1990).

[xx]  Public Accommodations: Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities (Title III). United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

[xxi] Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Public Law 101-336. 108th Congress, 2nd Session (July 26, 1990).

[xxii]  Rehabilitation Act: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. U.S. Department of Education.

[xxiii] “Welcome to RSA.” U.S. Department of Education.

[xxiv]  SSA: Disability Benefits. Social Security.

[xxv]  SSDI: Disability Planner: Social Security Protection If You Become Disabled. Social Security.

[xxvi]  SSI: Supplemental Security Income Home Page — 2017 Edition. Social Security.

[xxvii] Sheryl Burgstahler, “Universal Design in Education: Principles and Applications”, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT).

[xxviii]  VEVRAA: New Rules: Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act. National Network, Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act.


All other definitions within the Glossary of Terms are referenced from the RIT Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education.