Disability 101

Disability 101

The following pages include general information about disability and the laws that protect the rights of individuals with disabilities, Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 


AHEAD is a professional membership organization for individuals involved in the development of policy and in the provision of quality services to meet the needs of persons with disabilities involved in all areas of higher education.

The ADA.gov site includes publications and videos pertaining to the law and regulations, design standards, technical assistance standards, and enforcement.

Disability Basics

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

A federal law that gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

Assistive Technology

Equipment that enhances the ability of students and employees to be more efficient and successful.

Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Any of a range of behavioral disorders in children characterized by symptoms that include poor concentration, an inability to focus on tasks, difficulty in paying attention, and impulsivity. A person can be predominantly inattentive (often referred to as ADD), predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, or a combination of these two.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

An inability to accurately process and interpret sound information. Students with APD often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words

Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)

A disorder that occurs when the ear and the brain do not coordinate fully. A CAPD is a physical hearing impairment, but one which does not show up as a hearing loss on routine screenings or an audiogram. Instead, it affects the hearing system beyond the ear, whose job it is to separate a meaningful message from non-essential background sound and deliver that information with good clarity to the intellectual centers of the brain (the central nervous system).


A severe difficulty in understanding and using symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics.


A severe difficulty in producing handwriting that is legible and written at an age-appropriate speed.


A language-based disability that affects both oral and written language. It may also be referred to as reading disability, reading difference, or reading disorder.


A marked difficulty in remembering names or recalling words needed for oral or written language.


A severe difficulty in performing drawing, writing, buttoning, and other tasks requiring fine motor skill, or in sequencing the necessary movements.

Executive Function

The ability to organize cognitive processes. This includes the ability to plan ahead, prioritize, stop and start activities, shift from one activity to another activity, and to monitor one's own behavior.

Family Educational Right To Privacy Act (FERPA)

A federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

A plan outlining special education and related services specifically designed to meet the unique educational needs of a student with a disability.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the law that guarantees all children with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education.

Language Learning Disability (LLD)

A language learning disability is a disorder that may affect the comprehension and use of spoken or written language as well as nonverbal language, such as eye contact and tone of speech, in both adults and children.

Learning Disability (LD)

A disorder that affects people's ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. It may also be referred to as a learning disorder or a learning difference.

Listening Comprehension

Understanding speech. Listening comprehension, as with reading comprehension, can be described in "levels" – lower levels of listening comprehension would include understanding only the facts explicitly stated in a spoken passage that has very simple syntax and uncomplicated vocabulary. Advanced levels of listening comprehension would include implicit understanding and drawing inferences from spoken passages that feature more complicated syntax and more advanced vocabulary.

Nonverbal Learning Disability

A neurological disorder which originates in the right hemisphere of the brain. Reception of nonverbal or performance-based information governed by this hemisphere is impaired in varying degrees, causing problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative, and holistic processing functions.

This page provides examples of appropriate language for writing about people with disabilities.

People with disabilities prefer that you focus on their individuality, not their disability.

The following are some recommendations:

Never use the article 'THE' with an adjective to describe people with disabilities.

The preferred usage, 'people with disabilities, stresses the uniqueness of individuals, regardless of disability. For example:

People who are deaf                           vs.                                the deaf

People with disabilities                                                           The disabled

To refer to a person's disability, choose the correct terminology for the specific disability.

The following terms are examples of appropriate terms to describe people with disabilities.

People who are: blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing, mentally retarded. People with, or who have: Cerebral Palsy, Down's Syndrome, mental illness, paraplegia, quadriplegia, partial hearing loss, seizure disorder, specific learning disability, speech impairment.

Be careful not to imply that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient or 'special' than others. Never use the term 'normal' in contrast.

Trina qualified for her ‘Swimmer’ certificate  vs.

Trina held her own while swimming with normal children.

A person in a wheelchair is a 'wheelchair user' or 'uses a wheelchair.' Avoid terms that define the disability as a limitation such as 'confined to a wheelchair' or 'wheelchair-bound." A wheelchair liberates; it doesn't confine.

Never use the terms 'victim' or 'sufferer' to refer to a person who has had a disease or disability. This term dehumanizes the person and emphasizes powerlessness.

Person with HIV/AIDS vs.

Victim of AIDS or AIDS sufferer


(From Campus Guidelines for Using Inclusive Language and Illustrations in University Publications-University of Maryland at College Park.)