Terms used in the disability community

When families first become involved in the disability community, terms and acronyms used for diagnoses and services can bewilder them. To help, The Arc has assembled this glossary of disability-related terms.

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Acronyms: abbreviations for programs, laws, conditions, etc. used among professionals and families involved with disabilities. Here is a printable list of acronyms that are commonly used.
Adaptive behavior: a collection of conceptual, social, and practical skills that allow individuals to function in their everyday lives. Limitations in adaptive behavior can impact a person’s daily life and affect the ability to respond to a particular situation or to the environment.

Adult Protective Services (APS): a branch of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services responsible for investigating reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of elder or adults with disabilities as enacted in Human Resource Code Chapter 48.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): a comprehensive set of laws designed to ensure equality and protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice is in charge of enforcing these laws. To obtain a copy of the act, you can call the ADA Hotline at (800) 514-0301 or click here

Angelman syndrome: a neuro-genetic disorder that occurs in 1 in 15,000 live births. Characteristics of Angelman syndrome include developmental delays, lack of speech, seizures, problems with walking and balance, jerky movements and hand-flapping, unusually frequent laughter or smiling, and apparent happy demeanor.

Aphasia: a language impairment affecting the production or comprehension of speech and/or the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain, most commonly from a stroke but also from head trauma, brain tumors, or infections.

Admission, Review and Dismissal Committee (ARD): the committee made up of parents and school staff who hold annual “ARD meetings” to decide whether or not a student has an eligible disability and what special education and related services will be provided. The committee’s major responsibility is the development of an individual education programs (IEP) for students receiving special education.

Asperger’s syndrome: an autism spectrum disorder characterized by deficits in social cognition, eccentric and repetitive behavior patterns, and intense, “obsessive” interests. It differs from other forms of autism in that there is relatively little or no delay in language and cognitive functioning. See also: “autism spectrum disorder”, “pervasive developmental disorder”.

Assistive technology: any item, piece of equipment, or product used to increase, maintain or improve the functioning of an individual with a disability. These can include devices aiding with seating and positioning, mobility, communication, computer use, environmental control, and self-care. They can also include adaptive games and toys for children as well as devices for individuals with visual or hearing impairments.

Attention deficit disorder (ADD): a mostly outdated term for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). See also: “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a neurobiological disorder affecting an individual’s attentiveness and/or impulse control. Symptoms include absent-mindedness, hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsiveness, developmentally inappropriate behavior. The symptoms appear during early childhood (before age seven) and typically last well into adulthood. Also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): a complex developmental disability that appears during early childhood and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is characterized by language and communication deficits, social cognition deficits, and repetitive behaviors. These symptoms can vary widely in type and degree of severity; some individuals display only “mild” symptoms, while others’ symptoms may be much more profound. See also: “Asperger’s syndrome”, “pervasive developmental disorder”.

Behavior disorders/emotional disturbance: umbrella terms used to classify children who exhibit chronic and extreme social, emotional, or behavioral problems. The terms may refer to a number of different maladjustments, including hyperactivity and aggression, anxiety and withdrawal, emotional immaturity, and learning problems.
Cerebral palsy: a life-long condition caused by damage to the brain during pregnancy, labor or shortly following birth. It is characterized by the inability to control motor functions and can result in involuntary movement, disturbance in gait and mobility, visual, hearing or speech impairments.

Conduct disorder: a persistent pattern of behavior that involves deliberate violations of the rights of others and display verbal and physical aggression, disobedience, destructiveness, dishonesty, and/or theft. Lack of remorse and distrustfulness are also associated with conduct disorder. See also: “behavior disorders/emotional disturbance” and “oppositional defiant disorder”.

Conservatee: a minor being protected.

Conservator: a legally appointed protector; preserver of a minor.

Cri-du-chat syndrome: a rare genetic condition involving a missing piece of chromosome 5. It results in low birth weight and poor muscle tone in infants, and it’s further characterized by atypical facial features, intellectual disabilities, delayed walking, and language and behavioral difficulties. Some children with cri-du-chat are also born with organ defects. Also known as 5p- syndrome.

Developmental disability: an umbrella term for disabilities manifesting during childhood that create substantial deficits in intellectual and/or adaptive skills. These can include intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, or other neurological conditions.

Developmental delay: a condition in which a young child fails to or is slow to achieve typical developmental milestones in the areas of motor skills, language, social skills, emotional regulation, cognition, and/or self-care. These children may be at a greater risk for a developmental disability; early intervention can help improve their prognosis or, in mild cases, help the child “catch up”.

Down syndrome: a genetic condition caused by a duplication of the 21st chromosome. Symptoms include atypical facial features (such as slanted eyes and a flat profile), a predisposition for congenital heart disease, as well as some degree of intellectual and developmental delays. Also known as trisomy 21.

Dysphagia: a disorder which characterized by difficulty in or a complete inability to swallow food, liquid, or saliva. As a result, dysphagia may lead to medical problems related to malnutrition.

Dyspraxia: a learning disability that hampers an individual’s motor skills and the ability to carry out fine motor tasks, such as writing and personal grooming. Although dyspraxia does not affect a person’s intelligence, it is often associated with disordered speech and learning difficulties.

Epilepsy: a disorder characterized by repeated and spontaneous episodes of disturbed brain function that cause changes in attention or behavior (seizures). Epileptic seizures are caused by abnormally excited electrical signals in the brain, and they can vary in degree of severity.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): a wide range of mental and physical birth defects caused by a mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. These defects can include intellectual disabilities, growth deficiencies, central nervous system dysfunction, facial abnormalities, and emotional/behavioral maladjustments.

Fragile X syndrome: a genetic disorder caused by a mutation within the X chromosome. It is characterized by varying degrees of intellectual disability, facial abnormalities (such as large ears and an elongated face), and behavioral problems. Fragile X is also highly associated with conditions such as ADHD, autism, and sensory integration disorder.

Guardian: A person appointed by the probate court to protect the property and/or well being of one who does not have the capacity to protect his or her own interests.
Guardian of the estate: A guardian who possesses any or all powers and rights with regard to the property of the individual.

Guardian of the person: A guardian who is responsible for the health, well-being, and personal needs of the individual and acts as his or her advocate.

Guardian of the person and the estate: A guardian who possesses any or all powers and rights with regard to the property of the individual, is responsible for the individual’s health, well-being, and personal needs, and acts as his or her advocate.

Home and Community Based Services (HCS): a state program designed to build support services based on an individual’s needs. Services may be provided in the family home or within an alternative living residence. These services may include adaptive aids, day habilitation, dental treatment, minor home modifications, nursing, residential assistance, respite care, specialized therapies, and/or supported employment. To receive these services, an individual must qualify for care in an intermediate care facility and have a diagnosed intellectual disability.
Incapacitated person: an adult who, due to their physical or mental condition, is unable to substantially feed, clothe or shelter himself/herself, to care for his/her physical health, or to manage his/her financial affairs.

In-Home and Family Support (IHFS): a state program that provides direct grant benefits for individuals with physical disabilities and their families. These benefits can be used to purchase various services, such as in-home healthcare and attendant services, therapy and training, transportation, special equipment, and respite care. To be considered eligible, individuals must be over age 4 and have a physical disability that substantially limits life activities.

Intellectual disability: a condition originating before the age 18 characterized by limitations in both intellectual and adaptive functioning that can range from mild to profound. Individuals with intellectual disabilities typically have IQs far below the norm (70 or lower) as well as difficulties in the areas of communication, self-care, social skills, problem solving, functional academics, and work. Also known as mental retardation.

Klinefelter syndrome: a disorder caused by the presence of an extra X chromosome in a male. It is characterized by a testosterone deficiency, which leads to reduced muscle mass, enlarged breast tissue, reduced body and facial hair, and fertility problems. Klinefelter syndrome is also associated with language delays, socialization difficulties, and learning problems. Also known as XXY syndrome.
Learning disability: an umbrella term for disorders which affect and individual’s ability to read, write, speak, reason, calculate, and/or attend to stimuli. These disorders can include (but are not limited to) dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and ADHD.

Letter of guardianship: an official letter issued by the County Clerk’s office which is written evidence of the appointment of a guardian and the authority of the guardian to act for the ward.

Lowe syndrome: a rare genetic condition caused by a single defective gene on the X-chromosome which prohibits the body’s production of the essential enzyme PIP2-5-phosphatase. Lowe syndrome is characterized by cataracts during infancy, a high risk of glaucoma, kidney disease, and intellectual disability. Also known as OCRL syndrome.

Medicaid: a jointly funded, Federal-State health insurance program for low-income and needy people. It covers children, the aged, blind, and/or disabled and other people who are eligible to receive federally assisted income maintenance payments.

Medicare: the federal health insurance program that covers most people age 65 and older. Some younger people who are disabled or who have permanent kidney failure are also eligible for coverage.

Mental retardation: a mostly outdated term for intellectual disabilities. Due to its increasing use as a slur, it is now considered offensive by many individuals with intellectual disabilities and their advocates; however, some schools and state organizations still use the term. See also: “intellectual disability”.

Multiple sclerosis (MS): a chronic neurological disorder caused by an individual’s immune system attacking the central nervous system (CNS). It is characterized by a wide range of symptoms, such as paralysis, numbness, cognitive dysfunction, and mood disorders, and these symptoms can vary in severity from mild to severe.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): a behavior disorder of early to middle childhood characterized by extreme and chronic rule-breaking, angry outbursts, and spitefulness. Children with ODD may be at risk for developing conduct disorder as they grow up. See also: “behavior disorders/emotional disturbance” and “conduct disorder”.
Payee: a person who receives and disburses the ward’s social security income or SSI outside of the jurisdiction of the court. These funds are monitored by the Social Security Administration. A person may also serve as payee for Veteran’s and Railroad Retirement benefits.

Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD): an umbrella term referring to a group of disorders that involve delays or impairments in communication and social skills, including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). See also: “autism spectrum disorder”, “Asperger’s syndrome”, “Rett syndrome”.

Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS): a genetic disorder caused by missing genetic material on chromosome 15. It is characterized by low muscle tone, shortness of stature, behavioral problems, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, intellectual disabilities, incomplete sexual maturity, and a relentless appetite. Individuals with PWS are also at a greater risk of developing complications due to overeating and obesity.

Probate: a matter relating to or involving guardianship, the probate of a will, the estate of a decedent or a trust.

Probate court: a court with statutory authority to hear probate matters.

Representative payee: an arrangement by which a governmental agency may appoint a substitute person to receive federal funds of behalf of a recipient who, by reason of physical or mental disability, is unable to manage the funds.

Respite care: short term or temporary care of individuals with disabilities provided so that their family members or guardians can take a break from the day to day stress of care giving, lasting from a few hours to three months. Unlike day care, respite care may also include overnight care.

Rett syndrome: a pervasive developmental disorder caused by several mutations on the X chromosome. It is characterized by a short period of typical development (six to eighteen months) followed by a period of regression and the emergence of autism-like symptoms. Rett syndrome can affect an individual’s cognitive and social skills, sensory processing, mobility, and mood, and it may also cause physical problems such as heart malfunction and digestive difficulties.

Sensory integration dysfunction (SID): a disorder causing abnormalities in the way an individual’s brain processes sensory stimuli. It is characterized by unusual responses to visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and vestibular sensations. Some common manifestations of SID include sensitivity to textures of clothes or foods, a strong dislike of being hugged or touched, a fear of certain noises, and constant motions such as rocking or spinning. Also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Sotos syndrome: a genetic disorder caused by a missing or altered gene in chromosome 5. It is characterized by physical overgrowth during the first years of life, low muscle tone, delayed motor, cognitive and social development, and impaired speech. Also known as cerebral gigantism.

Special education students: students with educational needs that cannot be met in a regular classroom without certain modifications or special arrangements. These students can include those with physical or mental disabilities as well as those who are gifted and talented.

Spina bifida: a birth defect caused by the failure of the fetus’ spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. It is characterized by mild to severe impairments in mobility, cognition, and/or learning. Individuals with spina bifida are also at a high risk for developing hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”).

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not Social Security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income and to provide cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.

Tourette syndrome: a neurological disorder characterized by frequent, involuntary, and repetitive movements and vocalizations (tics). It is also associated with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior.

Ward: an incapacitated person who has been placed in the care, custody and supervision of a guardian.

Williams syndrome: a disorder caused by missing genetic material on chromosome 7. It is characterized by distinct facial features (smaller sized heads, puffiness around the eyes, small chins), poor muscle tone, premature puberty, hypersensitive hearing, and cardiovascular problems. Individuals with Williams syndrome may be gifted in their use of language while simultaneously being delayed in other intellectual domains; they also tend to be highly outgoing and show excessive friendliness.

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