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Glossary of Disability Terms

Below are the terms often used in the disability community.


A physical condition that occurs when there is a sudden, brief change in the brain.  This abnormal electrical activity in the brain can cause a person’s consciousness, movement, or actions to be altered for a short time—called an epileptic seizure.  Epilepsy is also called a seizure disorder.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

A combination of physical and mental disabilities which develops in babies before birth when the mother drinks a substantial amount of alcoholic beverages during pregnancy.


Physical and social barriers that put people with disabilities at a disadvantage and hinder their ability to fully participate in the community. A person with a disability is not “handicapped” but may be limited by attitudinal, physical, and other barriers that society fails to remove.

Hard of Hearing

Hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound, that can benefit from the use of hearing aids or other assistive listening devices and depends primarily upon spoken or written communication.
hearing impaired: Refers to all people with hearing loss regardless of severity of loss, age at onset, communication methods, use of technology or socio-cultural factors.

Hearing Impairment

Loss of auditory functioning, ranging from hard of hearing to deaf.

Intellectual Disability

is a disability that involves significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18 and encompasses a wide range of conditions, types, and levels. Intellectual disability is caused by factors that can be physical, genetic, and/or social.

Learning Disability (LD)

A lifelong disorder that affects a person’s ability to either interpret what he/she sees and hears or to link information from different parts of the brain.  These limitations can show up in many ways—as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self-control, or attention.  A person with a learning disability may have normal intelligence; however, there is a significant discrepancy in intelligence level and his/her ability to learn and perform certain tasks.  Most people with learning disabilities alone are not eligible for developmental disabilities services but may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation services.

Legal Blindness

Corrected visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye or visual field contraction of 20 degrees or less.

Mental Retardation (MR)

Mental retardation is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before age 18. The term ‘intellectual disability’ is synonymous with the term ‘mental retardation,’ and is generally replacing it.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

A disorder of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) involving decreased nerve function because of scars that form on the covering of nerve cells.  Onset usually occurs from age 20 to 40, resulting in difficulties in walking, talking, sensing, seeing, and grasping.

Muscular Dystrophy (MD)

A group of over 40 neuromuscular disorders characterized by progressive weakness and degeneration of the muscles that control movement.  The muscles of the heart and some other involuntary muscles are also affected in some forms of muscular dystrophy, and a few forms involve other organs as well.  While all muscular dystrophy disorders are genetic, they are not always inherited.  Onset of muscular dystrophy can be from birth to middle age, depending on the type of neuromuscular disease.


Sudden, uncontrollable spasm of muscles caused by excessive electrical activity in the brain (see epilepsy).

Speech Impairment

Any of several speech problems that include articulation impairment (omissions, substitutions or distortions of sound), voice impairment (inappropriate pitch, loudness or voice quality) and fluency impairment (abnormal rate of speaking, speech interruptions and repetition of sounds, words, phrases or sentences which interferes with effective communication).

Spina Bifida

A condition caused by the incomplete closure of the spine during fetal development.  Characteristics include muscle weakness or paralysis below the area of the spine where the incomplete closure occurs; loss of bowel and bladder control; and/or accumulation of fluid in the brain, which is controlled by a surgical procedure, called shunting.

Tourette Syndrome

Neurological disorder characterized by tics— involuntary, rapid, sudden movements or vocalizations.

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North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities
820 South Boylan Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27603
919-527-6500 (voice/tdd)
800-357-6916 (voice/tdd)
800-357-6916 (TTY)
919-850-2915 fax